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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Djesus And The Nature of the Cross

SNL has caused quite a ruckus with its making of Djesus Uncrossed, a satirical twist of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Django Unchained. 

The video gets its comedic punch from the irony in seeing the non-violent and cross-dead Messiah toting a machine gun and taking out his enemies Rambo style. Many Christians were upset at SNL’s portrayal of Jesus but I couldn’t help but think: Haven’t we brought this on ourselves? Isn’t SNL just forcing us to confront an image of Jesus that is present in much of the way we talk about Jesus as he is going to appear at the Second Coming?

It seems to me that the Jesus of Djesus Unchained is the very one that is revealed in a great deal of conservative Evangelical theology. This is the Jesus who, upon his return, will strike down his enemies in the same way that Caesar strikes down his enemies, namely, with violence and force.

This leads to some important questions concerning how we understand the cross:

  • Was Jesus’ non-violent forgiveness on the cross an actual revelation of who God is or was it a momentary act of grace coming from an otherwise relentless and vengeful God?
  • Is God really as nice as Jesus or was the cross his way of putting off his violent retaliation for another time?

For me the cross indicates that God would rather die than coerce people. In the same way, God would rather forgive than seek revenge. The cross teaches us that God’s power is the power of weakness and frailty. God’s is the power of powerlessness. Rather than being a momentary blip on the radar between the genocidal God of the Israelite conquest and the war-waging God of Revelation, I think that the cross is where our understanding of God comes into sharpest focus which means that the former two images of God must be re-imagined and reinterpreted in light of the latter.

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Here are a few other blogs that I found interesting on the same subject:

The Absence of God: Reflections on Matthew 27:45-50

“From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah.’ Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.’ And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.” – Matthew 27:45-50

This passage has come to mean quite a lot to me the more I have grown as a disciple. I love it because in it we find raw and passionate emotion. In his hour of desperation we find Jesus addressing God in a way that is honest and real, even if his words weren’t “theologically correct.” The text does not actually tell us that God forsook Jesus. It simply communicates, given his cry on the cross, that Jesus perceived God to be absent. As the nails were driven through his hands and his vision became increasingly blurred from the blood running off of his brow, in a moment of excruciating pain and suffering, Jesus experienced the absence of God.

This is an experience that is familiar to me. Sometimes it seems that God is absent. Sometimes it seems that he doesn’t hear or see me. There are times when my perception and experience seem to indicate that he is distant and uninvolved. Perhaps you could relate. I would argue that our experience of God forsakenness is most definitely perceived, however, the experience, much like Jesus’, is still very real.

It is my contention that Jesus’ own experience of the absence of God legitimates our own experience. If Jesus is our model when it comes to living life as a fully human being then we ought to expect at least some degree of the experience of God-forsakenness. Let me be clear. I do not think that the experience of the absence of God should remain a constant in the life of the believer. Our experience of the cross, that is, our experience of God’s absence is always followed by the resurrection—the experience of God’s miraculous inbreaking. The order is important, though. Easter follows Good Friday. The resurrection follows the cross. Jesus’ vindication in his new life came after his experience of God’s absence. Our celebration of Sunday is cheapened when we don’t acknowledge the darkness of Friday.

What Jesus’ prayer on the cross teaches us is that it’s okay to be honest and real with God when we are experiencing his absence. Jesus, when praying this prayer, is actually quoting Psalm 22 and, in doing so, participating in Israel’s long held tradition of directing their pain towards God in the form of lament. If the Psalms teach us anything it is that God can handle our tough questions. God is okay with our raw emotion. It’s okay to cry if things aren’t going well.

Lamenting is an acknowledgment of the fact that the world is not as it should be. In a world ravaged with war, hunger, poverty, isolation, loneliness and depression, the church dares to cry out to the Creator of all in the belief that he listens.

I commend to you the following song because I think it is true to the tradition of Israel’s lament and takes seriously the absence of God that Jesus experienced on the cross and that we experience from time to time. It’s a song that is honest and raw and doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions of life.