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.



I had to write a devotional for my New Testament Theology course and share it with the class. I thought it would be cool to share it with you too:

As Christians, the question of life after death is one that is often on the forefront of our minds. Where do we go after we die? What’s heaven like? How should I live now in light of the future? The answers that are given in the church are often simple ones. When we die our souls float up to heaven where we will be with Jesus forever. Until then we are to lead quiet lives, not concerning ourselves with the cares or matters of this world for, after all, it’s not the physical that matters but the spiritual is what counts. This understanding of the afterlife runs throughout the church, at least the Western church, on a wide scale. It’s in our worship songs, our liturgy, and our preaching and teaching. Take, for example, the beloved hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” The following is a short excerpt from the song:

Some glad morning when this life is o’er,

I’ll fly away;

To a home on God’s celestial shore,

I’ll fly away


Just a few more weary days and then,

I’ll fly away

To a home on God’s celestial shore,

I’ll fly away

Here we get a perfect picture of what’s been described above. When I die my soul, or “the real me”, will fly away to heaven. The implication of this view of the afterlife is that life in the present is almost devoid of any meaning. We are to push through each weary day without much hope for the world around us. What really matters is that one day we’ll get to be with Jesus in heaven.

I myself used to believe that this is indeed what the Bible teaches us about heaven. I’d like to share with you an excerpt from a poem that I wrote around the beginning of my high school years.

I stand alone

Staring at this image in the mirror

A head full of hair that twists and turns in all directions

A face that is set to seriousness

Eyes fixed, trying to see past what is only physical

For a moment I do not recognize who it is

This shell of flesh

A temporary home for my soul

A simple glance becomes revelation

I continue to stare

Trying to hold on with all that I am to this sacred moment

My soul, the real me

Recognizing just for a moment that there is more

I am longing for something more

What usually works in conjunction is now separate

My soul, apart from my mind or my thoughts or my rationality,

Sees this body that contains me but is not me

Notice the low view of the body: it’s merely a shell of flesh that contains my soul; this shell of flesh is not the real me but rather contains the real me, that is, my soul. The body is a temporary home that we are to live in until we die and are released from these prisons that hold us captive.

How has this theology manifested itself in the life and ministry of the church today? For one, our evangelism has become primarily concerned with saving souls as opposed to feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. The dichotomy that we’ve created between the physical and the spiritual has caused us to be wrapped up in attempting to address people’s spiritual health before we even think about what might be causing them physical, emotional, or relational harm. Our church services, then, in an attempt to save as many souls as possible, have become “seeker sensitive”. If we can get them to like our lights, big drums, and trendy pastors then maybe we can get them to accept Jesus into their hearts. And who really cares about discipleship anyway? It’s more about getting people to pray the prayer so that they can get their one way ticket to heaven, right?

And what about our view of the environment? If we believe that the spiritual is what matters then we really shouldn’t care too much about taking care of God’s creation because at the end he’s probably going to burn it all anyway. The earth is to be subdued and used for our selfish purposes while we wait for Jesus to come back and rapture us into heaven.

This modern day gnosticism that rejects the material in favor of the immaterial often leads Christians who have put there faith in Jesus to ask the famous “now what?” question. If the only thing that matters is getting to heaven after you die then what’s the purpose of this life? Is it really all about just waiting until we die so that our souls can float off into immaterial bliss? Are we really only supposed to partake in the more spiritual activities like prayer and Scripture reading because everything else is mere vanity?

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul paints a much more optimistic and holistic picture of the Christian hope. It can be summarized with one word: resurrection. Some might be surprised to find out that the New Testament doesn’t tell us much about life after death. Instead it is concerned mainly with life after life after death, that is, the resurrection life that we will share when that final trumpet is blown and Jesus returns in order to clothe us with immortality. This is what the New Testament calls heaven. Heaven is not the place where we go after we die but rather, it is the resurrected life that we will share with Jesus and all God’s people after Jesus returns.

It is the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead that affirms the idea that our good God has created a good creation that he longs to redeem. Our bodies, God says, are good. The earth is good. The physical is good. The plan is not burn the earth and start all over. In fact, the resurrection of our own bodies is just a fraction of what God wants to do for his whole creation. We learn in Romans 8 that creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth, waiting for the children of God to be revealed so that we might be the means by which God brings redemption to everything he created.

If we affirm the goodness of creation and understand that the ultimate Christian hope is life in the resurrection, life on earth, albeit a renewed earth then the implications are huge. If God plans on bringing heaven down to earth, as we see in Revelation 21 and 22, and transforming our physical into bodies that can inherit the Kingdom of God then it seems that there would be some sort of continuity between this life and the life of the Age to Come. In other words, an affirmation of the physical world, a belief that God is going to redeem all of creation including our physical bodies means that the life that we live now on earth actually matters. This is indeed the conclusion that Paul comes to at the end of 1 Corinthians 15: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

This is far from the theology of “I’ll Fly Away.” That sort of theology would have us sit down and grit our teeth through each weary day as we wait for death. It seems that there is, instead, work to be done. Paul’s eschatology calls us to open our eyes and see the world through a new lens. God is making all things new and he has called us to join him in his work There is indeed hope for the present world. The promise of resurrection reassures us that in some mystical, incomprehensible way everything beautiful, loving, just, and right will carry over into God’s new creation. This is exactly why Paul, after 56 verses of explaining the resurrection to his audience, reminds them that nothing they do for the Lord is ever in vain. Their selfless, sacrificial love for one another will actually carry over into the new heavens and new earth. Their attempts at bringing justice to the hurting world around them is not futile.

The same is true for us today as Christ’s church and as individuals. As we pursue wholeness and peace in our communities we need to be reminded that our labor is not in vain. As we pour ourselves out for the sake of serving our brothers or sisters our work is not in vain. Even activities that we might consider “small” or “insignificant” become, in this light, meaningful and incredibly significant. Anytime we provide a listening ear to someone who is hurting we can rest assured that it is precisely that sort of action that will carry over into God’s new creation. Volunteering at a local youth group in order to build up and encourage the kids of our community is not to be understood as something without significance but rather, as an act of love and service that God will somehow, in a way that is beyond our comprehension, incorporate into his redeemed world. Our advocating on behalf of the poor and destitute is of lasting value. There is continuity between this life and the life of the Age to Come. The things we do in the present actually matter in God’s grand scheme.

An Untamed Summer

In an attempt to be more reflective and transparent, I’m resurrecting this blog. Plus, it’s just a great way to share fun stuff that I stumble upon while surfing the web. To kick things off I thought it would be appropriate to give a quick update in regards to what’s been going on in my life.  I’m not about to go all the way back to 2008 so I’ll just give y’all a recap of this summer. And just to preface:  Read this particular post as  a series of scratches on the proverbial surface that makes up my summer. These bullet points will serve as sneak peaks at my next few posts. In other words, the details are coming soon!

  • One of my Bible study groups has been going through Alan and Debra Hirsch’s book titled “Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship“. To summarize I’ll say this: WOW. What a great read this book has been. I’ve spent a great deal of time reflecting on anything and everything that has to do with the church (i.e. What is the church? What models of church are the most successful? How should we even define “success” within the church? Etc…) and a great deal of these reflections have been stimulated by Alan and Debra’s reflections. I’ll most definitely take another post to share more of my thoughts in detail concerning the church and everything related.
  • While I’m on the topic of church I’ll say this: thank God for community. This summer has been a breath of fresh air in this respect. To update briefly, I’m still attending Mountain View on Sunday mornings when I’m around. On top of that I’m attending house churches on Sunday nights and Thursday nights. I’m new to the whole house church thing but so far I’m loving it. Pardon the cliché but less really is more. The small group atmosphere that the house church fosters seems to breed honesty, openness, and transparency. Both of the house churches that I’ve been involved in this summer have been committed to living out 1 John 1:5-10.
  • On that note, I’m making 1 John 1:5-10 my theme verse for this upcoming school year. I leave in just under two weeks to head back up to Columbia Bible College for another year of studies. I’m going to be a Resident Leader again which essentially consists of building relationships with the 11 guys in dorms that God places under my care, facilitating spiritual growth to the best of my ability, and just keeping things under control in the dorms. I was an RL last year and I learned quite a bit and I look forward to taking another crack at it this year.
  • Politically, I’ve been on quite the journey this summer. When the 4th of July rolled around the American flags went up and patriotism was bubbling forth everywhere I looked. I confess that I felt a little uneasy about it all. Some of you know what my political journey has looked like over the course of most of my adult life (for those of you who don’t I will be taking you through it all in another post) but to summarize, due to where I’ve come from I am what you might call hypersensitive to hyper-patriotism. Anywho, my uneasiness led to yet another paradigm shift concerning my political views. To sum up where I’ve landed I’ll say this: Jesus is King. Of course, I’ll be teasing that out in another post.
  • Nothing has changed this summer concerning my man crush on N.T. Wright. I finished “The Resurrection of the Son of God” at the beginning of the summer which I can honestly say has changed my life. His work on the resurrection has changed the way I view the world. On top of that I am almost finished with his book entitled “What Saint Paul Really Said” which is essentially a summary of what many are calling “The New Perspective on Paul“. Without going too in depth I’ll say that despite the recent criticisms of Wright from those who belong to the Reformed circle, his work must be taken seriously due to his commitment to being faithful to the Scriptures. I love that Wright’s aim is not to view Scripture through the lens of Luther and Calvin (which is, in my opinion, the aim of Reformed theology) but instead, to “think Paul’s thoughts after him.” I’ll leave it at that for now.

Anywho,  every one of these bullets are begging to be teased out but, like I said earlier, the deets are coming! Until then I’ll conclude by saying that this summer has been great in regards to learning what it means to be more in love with Jesus. It’s my prayer that every season of my life leads to growth in that respect.

Dear Christian, Stop Picketing for Prop. 8

I drove by yet another group of people today that were holding up the infamous “Protect Marriage: Vote YES on Prop. 8” signs in the name of Jesus. I must say that I’m a wee bit flustered. I understand that the Bible speaks of marriage being between one man and one woman and I understand that this would lead you to vote yes on Prop. 8 but please stop ruining the opportunity to have a civil conversation with someone who opposes the proposition.

And please don’t feel like the battle has been won if Prop. 8 does end up passing. The truth is, people are still living in sin and need the love of Jesus. Let’s stop focusing all of our energy on picketing Prop. 8 and funnel it toward a conversation regarding how we are going to love gay people and share Jesus with them. More will be accomplished this way than if any law is ever passed.

Laws don’t change people’s hearts.

And what about poverty? Do we not care enough about poor people to picket on their behalf?

Why does gay marriage have to be the one issue that the church feels strongly enough to picket?

I’m sick of it…