Identity Politics and the Cross: Peter Rollins on the Scapegoat Mechanism

I’ve written a bit in the past on the scapegoat mechanism. This is the idea that one of the ways human communities function is by uniting in hatred against a designated “other”, the result being that this chosen victim is usually excluded from community or, at worst, killed sacrificially in order to keep the peace.

Peter Rollins, in a recent response to a critique of his Atheism for Lent project, made an interesting observation about the way that the scapegoat mechanism has functioned in the church, particularly in relation to the way the church has responded to the gay community’s cry for justice and equality:

This is why the liberal strategy of opening up communities to previously scapegoated others is not, in itself, sufficient. In religious terms we can note how some conservative churches are beginning to open up to the possibility that gays and lesbians can be equal members of their community.  Just as they eventually learned to reject explicit racism and sexism now they are gradually learning to overcome heterosexism. But the problem is that the fundamental structure of scapegoating is not broken in the acceptance of the latest “other,” and if the underlying scapegoat mechanism is not decommissioned then new “others” will always arise to protect the group from its own internal conflicts.

There will always be an other as long as we refuse to face ourselves. For example in some of these groups gays and lesbians are now being accepted as long as they embrace the idea of lifelong monogamous marriage. This means that those, gay and straight, who don’t accept that lifestyle for themselves can be excluded as immoral, corrupt and a threat to the institution of marriage.

One of the things Rollins has pointed out in his most recent book The Idolatry of God is that in too many instances has the label “Christian” become another identity marker that serves to distinguish “us” (those who are in, the blessed, the righteous, etc.) from “them” (the infidels, the heretics, the unrepentant, the sinners, etc.). Thus, the Church is just as guilty as “the outsiders” when it comes to playing the game of identity politics or utilizing the scapegoat mechanism to keep the peace.

The Church’s “other” has taken many forms. In the past it was slaves and women (indeed, there are parts of the Church in which the scapegoating of this “other” is still functioning). Today we could say that the Church’s “other” is the gay community.

Rollins points out that the answer to the church’s refusal to grant full acceptance to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is not to become more “open and affirming” (a badge that even progressives like to wear). The result of such action would merely be that we find a different “other” to scapegoat and unite against. Indeed, in many communities this is already happening. Gays and lesbians are welcome but not those who refuse to conform to our view of marriage and commitment (covenant, monogamous relationships only). Those who refuse to conform are then excluded in the name of maintaining our community’s boundaries defining who’s in and who’s out.

To become more open and affirming fails to challenge the underlying scapegoat mechanism that caused us to have an “other” in the first place.

Rollins argues that on the cross Jesus experienced the loss of all identity. As the community that gathers in remembrance of the one without an identity, the Church refuses to draw lines in the sand that separate “us” from “them.”

One of Paul’s radical insights was that he did not see the event of Christ as simply another identity to place alongside the others. Instead, he wrote of a different type of cut, one that cuts across all these concretely existing identities [Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female, etc.*]. In an unprecedented move, he wrote of how those who identify with Christ are no longer held captive by these categories… (pg. 106)

Jesus’ passion teaches us that the scapegoat mechanism is not to be utilized by those in the Church. Rather than finding unity in the sacrificing or exclusion of a chosen victim, the Church, as a community of those who identify with Christ’s loss of identity on the cross, gathers around a table where we break bread and remember our crucified Messiah. We are called not to play the game of identity politics.

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5 responses to “Identity Politics and the Cross: Peter Rollins on the Scapegoat Mechanism

  1. where does paul say in the bible that gay/lesbian are no longer to be held by these categories? I’ve never read that in the bible?

    • Paul refers to three sets of tribal identities that were clung to tightly in his day (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female). These tribal identities were held onto in order to exclude people who were not in one’s own tribe. For Paul, the Christ event cuts through these tribal identities. To say that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free is a call to the Christ community to stop drawing lines between warring tribes. Again, the Church is not to function by means of the scapegoat mechanism.

      Today there are a whole wealth of new tribal identities that the Church still clings to (Christian/non-Christian, gay/straight, Democrat/Republican, etc.). I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine Paul calling us beyond these tribal identities today just as he did for the Galatians in his own day. In Christ there is neither Christian nor non-Christian, Republican nor Democrat, gay nor straight.

  2. Pingback: Identity politics and “crucified identities” | Real Rest is the Best

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