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Scapegoating and the Cross

Scapegoating and the Cross

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Week Thirteen Summary and Practice

Sunday, March 28—Friday, April 2, 2021

Sunday
As long as we deal with the real meaning of evil and sin by some means other than forgiveness, we will keep projecting, fearing, and attacking it over there, instead of “gazing” on it within ourselves and “weeping” over it.

Monday
With a mistaken view of God, we believe our violence is necessary, but there is no such thing as redemptive violence. Jesus replaced the myth of redemptive violence with the truth of redemptive suffering.

Tuesday
Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others. And remember that every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable. —Etty Hillesum

Wednesday
Do I wield my power to force control, to shape the narrative and determine what will be and how it will be? Do I allow myself to be honest about humanity’s failings and the abuse of power, seeing the ways in which I too could become like that which I oppose? —Felicia Murrell

Thursday
Our only truly essential human task here, Jesus teaches, is to grow beyond the survival instincts of the animal brain and egoic operating system into the kenotic joy and generosity of full human personhood. —Cynthia Bourgeault

Friday
Jesus dies “for” us not in the sense of “a substitute for us” but much more “in solidarity with” the suffering of all humanity since the beginning of time. The first is merely a heavenly transaction of sorts; the second is a transformation of our very soul and the trajectory of history.

 

Seeing No Stranger

 Valarie Kaur is a Sikh activist and civil rights lawyer who writes about the “revolutionary love” of “seeing no stranger.” Though René Girard believed the Gospel could transform our impulse to scapegoat, people of the Sikh faith have been more faithful to practices of nonviolence and compassion than many Christians. Valarie writes:

See no stranger has become a practice that defines my relationships. . . . Seeing no stranger begins in wonder. It is to look upon the face of anyone and choose to say: You are a part of me I do not yet know. Wonder is the wellspring for love. Who we wonder about determines whose stories we hear and whose joy and pain we share. Those we grieve with, those we sit with and weep with, are ultimately those we organize with and advocate for. When a critical mass of people come together to wonder about one another, grieve with one another, and fight with and for one another, we begin to build the solidarity needed for collective liberation and transformation—a solidarity rooted in love. . . .

Out in the world, I notice the unconscious biases that arise in me when I look at faces on the street or in the news. To practice seeing each of them as a sister or brother or family member, I say in my mind: You are a part of me I do not yet know. Through conscious repetition, I am practicing orienting to the world with wonder and preparing myself for the possibility of connection. (Sometimes I do this with animals and the earth, too!) It opens me up to pay attention to their story. When their story is painful, I make excuses to turn back—“It’s too overwhelming” or “It’s not my place”—but I hold the compass and remember that all I need to do is be present to their pain and find a way to grieve with them. If I can sit with their pain, I begin to ask:

What do they need? Listening to more stories, learning about a community’s history, or showing up to vigils or marches or memorials gives me information for how to fight for them. I seek out organizations that are already fighting for them and offer my voice or time or money or labor to assist them. When I worry that I’m not enough, I ask myself: What is my sword and shield? How will I fight? What will I risk? When I get overwhelmed, I ask: What is my role in this moment? I remember that I only have to shine my light in my corner of sky.

Richard here: Holy Saturday, the liminal time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is a day of waiting, of not knowing, of grieving all we have lost, all we have done, and all we have left undone. May Valarie Kaur’s questions inspire our own as we wait in expectant hope for the new life to come.

Experience a version of this practice through video and sound.

Reference:
Valarie Kaur, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love (One World: 2020), 310, 311–312. Emphasis in original.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Village dwelling. Escalante, Utah (detail), 1936, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Closed and shuttered, this house offers no welcome to a passerby. The sharp shadows of an unseen tree evoke the shadow of our often unacknowledged biases about who is “in” and who is “out.”
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Scapegoating and the Cross

The Saving Power of the Cross
Friday, April 2, 2021
Good Friday

Today the primary human problem is both revealed and resolved. It is indeed a “good” Friday. What is revealed is our human inclination to kill others, in any multitude of ways, instead of dying to ourselves—to our own illusions, pretenses, narcissism, and self-defeating behaviors. Jesus dies “for” us not in the sense of “a substitute for us” but “in solidarity with” the suffering of all humanity since the beginning of time! The first is merely a heavenly transaction of sorts; the second is a transformation of our very soul and the trajectory of history. My dear friend James Alison is a brilliant theologian and a primary teacher of the work of René Girard. [1] Here he writes about the true power of the cross:

[Jesus] went to death as a victim. . . .  And the reason that this is important is that it catches us at our worst, as it were. The space of the victim is the kind of place none of us at all ever wants to occupy, and if we find ourselves occupying it, it is kicking and screaming. More to the point, we spend a great deal of time pointing fingers and making sure that other people get to occupy that space, not us.

Now by Jesus going into, and occupying that space [of the victim], deliberately, without any attraction to it, he is not only proving that we needn’t be afraid of death, but also we needn’t be afraid of shame, disgrace, or of the fact that we have treated others to shame and disgrace. It is as if he were saying “Yes, you did this to me, as you do it to each other, and here I am undergoing this, occupying the space of it happening, but I’m doing so without being embittered or resentful. In fact, I was keen to occupy this space so as to try to get across to you that I am not only utterly alive, but that I am utterly loving. There is nothing you can do, no amount of evil that you can do to each other, that will be able to stop my loving you, nothing you can do to separate yourselves from me. The moment you perceive me, just here, on the cross, occupying this space for you and detoxifying it, the moment you perceive that, then you know that I am determined to show you that I love you, and am in your midst as your forgiving victim. This is how I prove my love to you: by taking you at your very lowest and worst point and saying “Yes, you do this to me, but I’m not concerned about that, let’s see whether we can’t learn a new way of being together.” [2]

On the cross, the veil between the Holy and the unholy is torn and the “curtain of his body” becomes a “living opening” (Hebrews 10:20). We all can enter the Holy of Holies, which is the very heart of God. Nothing changed in heaven on Good Friday, but everything potentially changed on earth!

References:
[1] I highly recommend James Alison’s exploration of René Girard’s work, particularly Alison’s four-part study series Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice (DOERS Publishing: 2013).

[2] James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, book 3, The Difference Jesus Makes (DOERS Publishing: 2013), essay 5, part 7.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent (Franciscan Media: 2010), 137‒139.

Story from Our Community:
When I read these daily meditations God speaks directly to my heart in a language beyond words. After the sudden and unexpected death of my husband, little provides comfort like these meditations, which we enjoyed together before he died. It is right to ask, what will I do with this pain? It really does seem so much easier to deny it, blame others, or run. But I am aware now, so I can choose to give it to God. On a deeply spiritual level, I can feel Fr. Richard’s words coming from my husband as well—“death is not final and it takes the form of love.” — Melissa S.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Village dwelling. Escalante, Utah (detail), 1936, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Closed and shuttered, this house offers no welcome to a passerby. The sharp shadows of an unseen tree evoke the shadow of our often unacknowledged biases about who is “in” and who is “out.”
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Scapegoating and the Cross

The Wisdom of the Passion
Thursday, April 1, 2021
Holy Thursday

CAC teacher Cynthia Bourgeault invites us to consider the meaning of the passion from a wisdom perspective, not as a spectator watching what Jesus did, but understanding what each of us is called to do:

The passion is really the mystery of all mysteries, the heart of the Christian faith experience. By the word “passion” here we mean the events which end Jesus’s earthly life: his betrayal, trial, execution on a cross, and death. . . .

The spectacle of an innocent and good man destroyed by the powers of this world is an archetypal human experience. It elicits our deepest feelings of remorse and empathy (and if we’re honest, our own deepest shadows as well). . . . It’s been used to stir anger and scapegoating. It’s been used to fuel anti-Semitism, to induce personal guilt—“Christ died for your sins”—and to arouse devotion in a sentimental and even fanatical way.

From a wisdom point of view, what can we say about the passion? . . .  The key lies in . . .  reading Jesus’s life as a sacrament: a sacred mystery whose real purpose is not to arouse empathy but to create empowerment. In other words, Jesus is not particularly interested in increasing either your guilt or your devotion, but rather, in deepening your personal capacity to make the passage into unitive life. If you’re willing to work with that wager, the passion begins to make sense in a whole new way. . . .

The path [Jesus] did walk is precisely the one that would most fully unleash the transformative power of his teaching. It both modeled and consecrated the eye of the needle that each one of us must personally pass through in order to accomplish the “one thing necessary” here, according to his teaching: to die to self. I am not talking about literal crucifixion, of course, but I am talking about the literal laying down of our “life,” at least as we usually recognize it. Our only truly essential human task here, Jesus teaches, is to grow beyond the survival instincts of the animal brain and egoic operating system into the kenotic joy and generosity of full human personhood. . . .

What is the meaning of the passion? First of all, God wasn’t angry. Again: God wasn’t angry! Particularly in fundamentalist theology, you’ll often hear it said that God got so fed up with the sins and transgressions of Israel that he demanded a human sacrifice in atonement. But of course, this interpretation would turn God into a monster. How can Jesus, who is love, radiate and reflect a God who is primarily a monster? And how can Christians theoretically progressing on a path of love consent to live under such a reign of terror? No, we need to bury once and for all those fear-and-punishment scenarios that got programmed into so many of us during our childhood. There is no monster out there; only love waiting to set us free.

Reference:
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 104, 105–106, 107. Emphasis in original.

Story from Our Community:
When I read these daily meditations God speaks directly to my heart in a language beyond words. After the sudden and unexpected death of my husband, little provides comfort like these meditations, which we enjoyed together before he died. It is right to ask, what will I do with this pain? It really does seem so much easier to deny it, blame others, or run. But I am aware now, so I can choose to give it to God. On a deeply spiritual level, I can feel Fr. Richard’s words coming from my husband as well—“death is not final and it takes the form of love.” — Melissa S.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Village dwelling. Escalante, Utah (detail), 1936, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Closed and shuttered, this house offers no welcome to a passerby. The sharp shadows of an unseen tree evoke the shadow of our often unacknowledged biases about who is “in” and who is “out.”
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Scapegoating and the Cross

Breaking the Cycle of Violence
Wednesday, March 31, 2021

I doubt very much that I need to point out the many ways we practice scapegoating in our society today. We do it on both the political left and right, in our churches and community groups, by finger-pointing and punishing. We are convinced that “they” (whoever “they” are) are the entirety of the problem. It takes great spiritual and psychological maturity to recognize and break the cycle.  Felicia Murrell, a writer, editor, and friend of the CAC, shares her own desire to walk a new and courageous path as an African American woman: 

It might feel good, after years of being shackled to scarcity, victimhood, poverty, suspicion, and inferiority, to project onto a scapegoat (holding the system complicit by association) the burden of hundreds of years of pain. We feel righteous. We long for someone else to feel what we feel or, at the very least, to validate that it’s okay for us to feel what we feel. Heavily laden with years and years of collective racial anger, misuse, and abuse, we lumber into liminality with all these feelings, these shackles of oppression.

And there, in liminal space—the space of sitting with our truths; the place of mystery, the unknown; the place where we let go of our injured expectations to be seen, to be known, to be welcomed—we offer ourselves what we’ve longed to have given to us. We acknowledge our feelings—the power and depth of each one—giving them space to roll through us, to breathe and take on life.

Instead of projecting outward or looking for resolution, we sit with them, breathe through them—allowing them to be as they are within us. We cry the tears our ancestors could not. We feel the fatigue they were not allowed to feel. We give in to the vulnerability that would have cost them their lives—not blaming, not finger-pointing, but honest truth-telling of our dehumanizing, painful history. On the threshold between what was and what will be, we unburden ourselves of our fierce, dogged determination to control the outcome of other people’s opinions of us, and there the alchemy happens.

With transformation comes power. . . . What will we do with our power? What will we call forth? There at the threshold, we decide. Do I wield my power to force control, to shape the narrative and determine what will be and how it will be? Do I allow myself to be honest about humanity’s failings and the abuse of power, seeing the ways in which I too could become like that which I oppose? Can I acknowledge the monster side of my humanity: lament it, forgive it, and let it go, realizing that it may cycle around again? . . .

In liminal space, I discover a formlessness that blurs the intersection of diversity and unity. The ambitious cry of, “’til all are one!” somehow morphs in liminal space and I realize we all are already one.

Reference:
Felicia Murrell, “Transition,” “Liminal Space,” Oneing, vol. 8, no. 1 (CAC Publishing: 2020), 31–32.

Story from Our Community:
When I was divorced from my husband of 32 years, I lost my marriage, my home, and my church. After enduring many years of rejection and hardship I came across Falling Upward. Since then I have been reading the daily meditations with Father Richard and the team. It restored my faith, changed my life, and helped me to heal from the deep hurt and scapegoating I encountered. I know I am profoundly loved by God. —Helen Y.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Village dwelling. Escalante, Utah (detail), 1936, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Closed and shuttered, this house offers no welcome to a passerby. The sharp shadows of an unseen tree evoke the shadow of our often unacknowledged biases about who is “in” and who is “out.”
Read Full Entry

Scapegoating and the Cross

Opposing Evil without Becoming It
Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The mystery of the cross teaches us how to stand against hate without becoming hate, how to oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves. We find ourselves stretching in both directions—toward God’s goodness and also toward recognition of our own complicity in evil. In that moment, we will feel crucified. We hang in between, without resolution, our very life a paradox held in hope by God (see Romans 8:23–25).

Over the next three days, I share a few examples of women who have understood the mystery of the cross in a personal and embodied way. They have known great suffering; they have been victims of oppression and cruelty and yet they sought to respond consciously, not reactively. Today, I offer a journal entry from Etty Hillesum (1914–1943), a young Jewish woman who was killed at Auschwitz. In her diary, she recreates a conversation with her friend, writer Klaas Smelik, about the hatred and bullying she saw within her own community:

Klaas, all I really wanted to say is this: we have so much work to do on ourselves that we shouldn’t even be thinking of hating our so-called enemies. We are hurtful enough to one another as it is. And I don’t really know what I mean when I say that there are bullies and bad characters among our own people, for no one is really “bad” deep down. I should have liked to reach out to that [bully] with all his fears, I should have liked to trace the source of his panic, to drive him ever deeper into himself, that is the only thing we can do, Klaas, in times like these.

And you, Klaas, give a tired and despondent wave and say, “But what you propose to do takes such a long time, and we don’t really have all that much time, do we?” And I reply, “What you want is something people have been trying to get for the last two thousand years, and for many more thousand years before that, in fact, ever since [humankind] has existed on earth.” “And what do you think the result has been, if I may ask?” you say.

And I repeat with the same old passion, although I am gradually beginning to think that I am being tiresome, “It is the only thing we can do, Klaas, I see no alternative, each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others. And remember that every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable.”

And you, Klaas, dogged old class fighter that you have always been, dismayed and astonished at the same time, say, “But that—that is nothing but Christianity!”

And I, amused by your confusion, retort quite coolly, “Yes, Christianity, and why ever not?” [1]

Richard again: It is a truth of the world’s major religions that the goal of God’s work—God by any name, I might add—is always healing reconciliation and not retributive justice, resurrection and not death.

References:
[1] Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943; and, Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 211‒212.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 203‒204.

Story from Our Community:
When I was divorced from my husband of 32 years, I lost my marriage, my home, and my church. After enduring many years of rejection and hardship I came across Falling Upward. Since then I have been reading the daily meditations with Father Richard and the team. It restored my faith, changed my life, and helped me to heal from the deep hurt and scapegoating I encountered. I know I am profoundly loved by God. —Helen Y.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Village dwelling. Escalante, Utah (detail), 1936, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Closed and shuttered, this house offers no welcome to a passerby. The sharp shadows of an unseen tree evoke the shadow of our often unacknowledged biases about who is “in” and who is “out.”
Read Full Entry

Scapegoating and the Cross

A Temporary Solution
Monday, March 29, 2021

The word “scapegoating” originated from an ingenious ritual described in Leviticus 16. According to Jewish law, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest laid hands on an “escaping” goat, placing all the sins of the Jewish people from the previous year onto the animal. Then the goat was beaten with reeds and thorns, driven out into the desert, and the people went home rejoicing. Violence towards the innocent victim was apparently quite effective at temporarily relieving the group’s guilt and shame. The same scapegoating dynamic was at play when European Christians burned supposed heretics at the stake, and when white Americans lynched Black Americans. In fact, the pattern is identical and totally non-rational.

Whenever the “sinner” is excluded, our collective ego is delighted and feels relieved and safe. It works, but only for a while, because it is merely an illusion. Repeatedly believing the lie, that this time we have the true culprit, we become more catatonic, habitually ignorant, and culpable—because, of course, scapegoating never really eliminates evil in the first place. As Russian philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” [1] As long as the evil is “over there,” we can change or expel someone else as the contaminating element. We then feel purified and at peace. But it is not the peace of Christ, which “the world cannot give” (see John 14:27).

Jesus became the scapegoat to reveal the universal lie of scapegoating. He became the sinned-against one to reveal the hidden nature of scapegoating, so that we would see how wrong even educated and well-meaning people can be. This is perfectly represented by Pilate and Caiaphas (state and religion), who both find their artificial reasons to condemn him (see John 16:8–11 and Romans 8:3).

In worshiping Jesus as the scapegoat, Christians should have learned to stop scapegoating, but we didn’t. We are still utterly wrong whenever we create arbitrary victims to avoid our own complicity in evil. It seems it is the most effective diversionary tactic possible. History has shown us that authority itself is not a good guide. Yet for many people, authority soothes their anxiety and relieves their own responsibility to form a mature conscience. We love to follow someone else and let them take the responsibility. It is a universal story line in history and all cultures.

With the mistaken view of God as a Punisher-in-Chief that most Christians seem to hold, we think our own violence is necessary and even good. But there is no such thing as redemptive violence. Violence doesn’t save; it only destroys all parties in both the short and long term. Jesus replaced the myth of redemptive violence with the truth of redemptive suffering. He showed us on the cross how to hold the pain and let it transform us.

References:
[1] Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, I–II, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (Harper & Row: 1974), 168.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, CONSPIRE 2016: Everything Belongs, sessions 2 and 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2016).

Story from Our Community:
I derive so much solace from Richard’s daily missives. Abuse from my father and mother as a child has driven embittered retaliation throughout my life. We deny our pain, sins, and suffering and project them elsewhere. Until we are enlightened by grace, we don’t even see the scapegoating. Recently I received my first “all clear” after cancer, which shed light on what mattered most—the love of my wife and daughters, love I never had when small. God bless Richard Rohr for his fine work and all of us making effort. —Tim T.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Village dwelling. Escalante, Utah (detail), 1936, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Closed and shuttered, this house offers no welcome to a passerby. The sharp shadows of an unseen tree evoke the shadow of our often unacknowledged biases about who is “in” and who is “out.”
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Scapegoating and the Cross

The Scapegoat Mechanism
Sunday, March 28, 2021
Palm Sunday

Human nature, when it is seeking power, wants either to play the victim or to create victims of others. In fact, the second follows from the first. Once we start feeling sorry for ourselves, we will soon find someone else to blame, accuse or attack—and with impunity! It settles the dust quickly, and it takes away any immediate shame, guilt, or anxiety. In other words, it works—at least for a while.

When we read today’s news, we realize the pattern has not changed much in all of history. Hating, fearing, or diminishing someone else holds us together for some reason. Scapegoating, or the creating of necessary victims, is in our hard wiring. Philosopher René Girard (1923–2015) calls “the scapegoat mechanism” the central pattern for the creation and maintenance of cultures worldwide since the beginning. [1]

The sequence, without being too clever, goes something like this: we compare, we copy, we compete, we conflict, we conspire, we condemn, and we crucify. If we do not recognize some variation of this pattern within ourselves and put an end to it in the early stages, it is almost inevitable. That is why spiritual teachers of any depth will always teach simplicity of lifestyle and freedom from the competitive power game, which is where it all begins. It is probably the only way out of the cycle of violence.

It’s hard for us religious people to hear, but the most persistent violence in human history has been “sacralized violence”—violence that we treated as sacred, but which was, in fact, not. Human beings have found a most effective way to legitimate their instinct toward fear and hatred. They imagine that they are fearing and hating on behalf of something holy and noble: God, religion, truth, morality, their children, or love of country. It takes away all guilt, and one can even think of oneself as representing the moral high ground or being responsible and prudent as a result. It never occurs to most people that they are becoming what they fear and hate.

This week we enter Holy Week, the days leading up to Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. As long as we deal with the real meaning of evil and sin by some means other than forgiveness and healing, we will keep projecting, fearing, and attacking it over there (“scapegoating’’), instead of “gazing” on it within ourselves and “weeping” over it. The longer we contemplate the cross, the more we recognize our own complicity in and profits made from the sin of others. Forgiveness demands three new simultaneous “seeings”: I must see God in the other; I must access God in myself; and I must experience God in a new way that is larger than an “enforcer.” That is a whole new world seen in three dimensions. The real “3-D”!

References:
[1] The scapegoat concept is a key feature of Girard’s thought, especially in Violence and the Sacred (1972), chapter 4; and The Scapegoat (1982), chapter 3.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 134‒135, 194.

Story from Our Community:
I derive so much solace from Richard’s daily missives. Abuse from my father and mother as a child has driven embittered retaliation throughout my life. We deny our pain, sins, and suffering and project them elsewhere. Until we are enlightened by grace, we don’t even see the scapegoating. Recently I received my first “all clear” after cancer, which shed light on what mattered most—the love of my wife and daughters, love I never had when small. God bless Richard Rohr for his fine work and all of us making effort. —Tim T.

Image credit: Dorothea Lange, Village dwelling. Escalante, Utah (detail), 1936, photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Closed and shuttered, this house offers no welcome to a passerby. The sharp shadows of an unseen tree evoke the shadow of our often unacknowledged biases about who is “in” and who is “out.”
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