Yesterday I was at the Spring Academy at the Seminary. This is the week where they put classes on hold and bring in high-profile theological speakers. It’s usually a great selection of people from all over the place who have specialization on all sorts of theological topics. I don’t always agree with all the speakers, but it is still good to hear different perspectives – it helps me to question my own thoughts and beliefs and wrestle with some difficult issues.
Yesterday we heard from Ted Peters. He’s big in Lutheran circles. You can check him out here – http://tedstimelytake.com/. He usually focuses on theology and science. Not in a way that puts the two in confrontation, but rather how they work together – this is actually a common Lutheran idea. There is no reason why theology and science have to be in conflict, as far as I’m concerned. They both have something to contribute to humanity.
Peters’ presentation was about scapegoating and self-justification. I can’t possibly give the entire presentation justice (pun intended). At any rate, the part that really stuck out for me was the part about scapegoating. Scapegoating is used to justify retributive justice. In other words, we heap the “sin” of the people onto a scapegoat and drive them out of the community. We do violence to the scapegoat so that we can be self-justified and consider ourselves innocent.
Scapegoating has been going on for as long as people have been around. Why? Because it works as a way to say “it’s not my fault.”
Now the really neat, or scary, thing he talked about was the invisible scapegoat. The invisible scapegoat is the scapegoat within the group. It “blinds and binds” the group. It is labeled as holy and sacred, and yet mistreated and abused. It is used and abused for the purpose of control. Peters used an example – the American soldier. Talk about touching a nerve for many people. Again, I’ll try to do justice to Peters argument, so take it easy on me.
Peters says that regardless of the US President, the soldier is the one who is made sacred to justify war. The blood that the soldier sheds is what gives us freedom. Therefore the soldier is sacred. Of course these sacred soldiers survive on a meager wage while they do the hard job of shedding blood. Again, it emphasizes the sacrificial nature of the soldier. He went on to tell us examples of this – from speeches that Lincoln, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama all made. They all have the same message.
This is where the power of the invisible scapegoat comes in. You are going to have a hard time criticizing the use of the scapegoat. Even opponents will step in line. Why? Because the scapegoat is sacred. A great example of this is the State of the Union address. Every year, for many years, regardless of the president, there is typically a soldier in the gallery who is pointed out. And the opposition party of the president will, without fail, stand and give applause in support of the soldier. All of this theater furthers the identification of the invisible scapegoat.
The conflict that Peters talked about was this – Where is God in all of this? We all fear death, yet we will all die. That is a fact. We are all sinners, yet we don’t like that fact either. So we scapegoat. This heaps our fear and our sins on someone and drives them out. The result, we feel better about ourselves and we distract ourselves from the death we face and the sin and fear we have.
Yet, it’s still there. And we’ll remember it again, and scapegoating will be used again.
So where is God in all of this? Peters says that with Jesus being among us, God says, scapegoating is no longer needed. Yet, humanity can’t resist and scapegoats Jesus. This is where the danger of self-justification comes out. When we feel violated, we feel justified in doing something about it. Beware, every time justice comes out as an argument for doing something, there will be death. Death can be literal, or it can be mean death in the way life is carried out.
Peters’ used a great example of this is with the Clippers’ owner and his comments. The NBA was quick to scapegoat the owner. Leave what he said on the side – that’s not the issue for this post. He was labeled and cursed. The NBA heaped its sin on him and drove him out. And how did everyone feel as a result – a lot better about themselves. Nothing actually changed in who they were, but they now feel justified and innocent. Someone was sacrificed for the sake of the community.
I’m sure you can see other examples of scapegoating in society – it’s pretty common.
The presentation was also a great explanation of why I am cynical when it comes to politics – having worked in the belly of the beast in DC and been guilty of scapegoating for the purpose of getting people elected.
Great presentation. I wish I had a video for you. It would be so much better than how I attempted to summarize Peters’ presentation.