Rene Girard and the Scapegoat Mechanism

Today was day one of a three day conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico for me.  It is called Conspire and is an annual conference on (essentially) Franciscan spirituality in today’s world.

One of the keynote speakers, James Alison, spoke at length on the work of Rene Girard.  What you are about to read is what I gathered from his distillation of Girard’s work.  Girard wrote on a plethora of topics but is very much well known for his assessment of the scapegoat phenomenon in culture and culture formation.  In his research, he did not find one culture in the course of human history that did not engage in scapegoating.

Cultures and people groups are, in some form or fashion, coalesced less because of what they are for and more for who they are against.  As such, a person then becomes the scapegoat, the focus of the group’s disdain or rejection.  Often, a group may interpret their ostracizing and outcasting of a person in a positive retelling that makes themselves look the hero.

There is always, in some capacity, an “invisible hand” constantly searching and looking for a new individual to point out and designate as the most recent scapegoat.  Without being vocalized, this reality of the “invisible hand” is precisely why individuals seek to demonize others…  Out of fear of being demonized themselves, some leaders will seek at all costs to point out someone else for being “worse” or “not one of us”.  It is easy to avoid being scapegoated oneself if you can sway the majority to scapegoat someone else.  In some capacity, this fear of being cast out is also the reason for which people will ascribe obedience to the dominant group and also for which rebels are met with mixed views.

However, Girard noticed that the story of Jesus is unique.  The scapegoat mechanism, the unconscious process, was exposed in the death of Jesus.  The recounting of Jesus’ life gives zero reason that he deserved his rejection by religious and political spheres.  Not only that, but his death does not at all allow those in places of authority to maintain their “innocence.”  In a very real way, the innocent man Jesus of Nazareth, became a scapegoat and outcast to expose the scapegoat mechanism as being primitive, hate-filled, and ignorant (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”)

The Christian Church should be the last place anyone should look for the scapegoat mechanism to be used.  In outcasting God in the crucifixion, God became the last one to be outcast because he showed that there is another way of galvanizing and establishing a community, through mercy, grace and love.  Whew.  That’ll preach.

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