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.

Jesus and Other Victims

In my last post I discussed the role myth plays in covering up the violent scapegoating of innocent victims. The myth of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) serves this purpose in modern Evangelicalism. In this myth we are told a grand story about the satisfaction of the wrath of an angry god by means of Christ’s death on the cross. Underneath this grand story, however, lies Jesus the victim, falsely accused and unjustly murdered. PSA does what all myth does, namely, it causes us to forget what is really going on in sacrifice. It covers up the injustice and violence of sacrifice.

The Oedipus myth that I summarized in my last post is a great example: Oedipus represents the innocent scapegoat who is killed because he is to blame for the community’s misfortune or sin. The way the myth is told, however, covers up the fact that the crimes Oedipus is supposedly guilty of are in no way correlated to the plight of Thebes. His exile is unwarranted but the myth, again, covers this fact up and instead justifies it. In the story world that the myth creates there is no victim and there are no murderers. Oedipus “deserved” what he got.

Rather than myth, what we find in the gospel accounts is what Mark Heim calls anti-myth. The death of Christianity’s central figure is not mythologized in order to cover up the innocence of the victim or to legitimate the killing of the scapegoat. Instead, the readers are reminded throughout that Jesus was indeed falsely accused, that his “crimes” were fabricated by the religious elite in order to legitimate their desire to kill him.

Here’s the rub: Myth silences the voice of the victim. In contrast, the passion narratives at the end of the four gospels tell a story from the perspective of the victim.

The crucifixion of Christ and the passion narratives that describe that event serve as an emphatic rejection of the mythologizing of violence. In these stories we find Jesus, the truly innocent victim, who entered into our violent sacrificial machine in order to rob it of its power. We unjustly murdered the one who could not be rightfully accused of anything. What’s more, when he was brought back from the grave he chose to forgive rather than mete out retribution. Instead of laying the smack down on his disciples for deserting him during his hour of need, the risen Christ invites them to a table for fish and bread. Thus, the cycle of violence is broken.

In response, the Christian community finds unity not in the sacrificing of an innocent victim but rather in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine around the table of the Lord.

In addition, part of the Christian vocation is to give voice to the victim–to stand in solidarity with the one who is being unjustly sacrificed for it is in the cross that Christ identifies with all innocent scapegoats.

This means that we must identify the myths in our society that attempt to do what PSA has done to Jesus.

A few examples:

  • Behind the myth of American imperialism lies the countless individuals who have been displaced, robbed, and killed in the name of Manifest Destiny. Christ stands in solidarity with these victims.
  • Behind the myth of Zionism lies the victims of Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza. Christ stands with the Palestinians.
  • Behind the myth of neo-liberal Friedmanite economics lies those who are mistreated and abused by corporations all over the globe. Christ stands with the slaves and the socialists and the poor who have been killed and marginalized in the name of the free market.
  • Behind the myth of technological progress lies our non-human neighbors who continue to be destroyed by our inability to say “enough.” Christ stands with these victims.

What other myths need to be unmasked?

Other thoughts, questions, concerns or comments?