APING, SCAPEGOATING, AND OTHER MEANS OF DENIAL
by Phil Berrigan
"You know nothing. It is expedient for one man to die for the
people, so that our nation will not be destroyed." (John 11:50)
"Let the groaning of the prisoners come
before you. According to the greatness of your power, save those
who are doomed to die." Ps. 79:11
The reader has undoubtedly known of the famous mirror at
the Bronx Zoo, with its inscription: "You're looking at the most
dangerous animal in the world."
We do well to ponder the mystery of human violence.
What makes us such lethal, rapacious creatures? Animals will not
finish off a defeated rival - their instincts become a brake on the
coup de grace. The brake we have is our reason (usually inadequate)
and our faith.
I remember a poet claiming that we have but one problem
- one another. I would revise that stating that we have but one
problem - ourselves. And because we, ourselves, are a problem,
others are inevitably so.
Out of this false, swollen, idolatrous self, about which
a vast ignorance prevails, comes violence. Violence becomes a Way
of Life, a necessary option (no other option), a possession by
demons. In a practical sense, it is our original sin. Nothing so
shatters and decimates our families, communities and peoples.
Nothing else so makes the world a maelstrom of hatred, ethnic strife
and war. Nothing else makes us hostages to the BOMB, victims of
perpetual war. Nothing else so pollutes and ravages the planet,
imposing a race upon the world's people - nuclear war or radioactive
poison. Clearly we learn non-violence to God, one another and
creation or we destroy ourselves.
Rene Girard, the French anthropologist, has written
provocative studies of violence, evolving a theory of scapegoating
as explanation. He claims that societies manage their violence by
blaming their conflicts upon a vicarious victim, and then killing
the victim. Such a mechanism proves cathartic, preserving even the
most violent societies. After scapegoating, social structuring
remained intact. So did levels of violence.
Mark Twain wrote a brilliant essay on scapegoating at
the turn of the century, over a rash of lynchings in Missouri -
black men ripped from jails and hung by white mobs, for alleged
offenses against white women. The executions seemed to purge the
community, allowing it to revert to normalcy - whites simmering with
hatred of Blacks. And Blacks terrified and cowed.
Caiaphas was the classic Biblical scapegoater, a
religious politician and power broker, a Jewish Quisling, a betrayer
of his people. Like most of his ilk, Caiaphas was desperately
afraid - afraid of this upstart from Galilee, afraid of the Romans
and Roman power, afraid perhaps of God also.
Caiaphas emerged from a tradition and testament
intimately familiar with violence. The Old Testament authors,
excepting some of the prophets, had little quarrel with violence.
The culture was steeped in violence, rooted in the most war ravaged
area on the planet. Israel won its turf by conquest (like today);
Israel became imperial under David and Solomon through bloodshed.
In this violent context, with both people and sacred
authors creating a Warrior God to their own measure, projecting upon
God their infidelities and crimes, God was able to draw
excruciatingly slow lessons of the bankruptcy and horror of
violence, and the humaneness and nobility of non-violence. These
lessons finally centered in God's Son Emmanuel - God with us.
"Philip, He who has seen me has seen the Father!" (Jn. 14:9)
In any event, Girard lists certain characteristics of
the scapegoating mechanism:
l. Mimetic Desire - Humans are imitative mimetic. We
ape or copy others that we admire. For good or evil.
2. Mimetic Rivalry - In a world of growing scarcity,
the imitated one and the one imitating might desire the same thing,
causing rivalry and conflict. Friends sometimes kill one another,
coveting property or another's wife.
3. Crisis of Distinctions - When two parties desire the
same thing, social distinctions between the two tend to evaporate.
Society has carefully built hierarchical barriers, many of them
unjust, to guard against rebellion and social disorder. When GI's
frag (kill) their officers, as happened in Vietnam, military
discipline collapses, and the Army cannot fight.
4. The Necessary Victim - The scapegoat can be a
Communist, a black person, a woman, a serial killer, a spy, a
psychopath, a homosexual, whatever the victim, the violence
conflicting parties centers on this odious one. Hostilities stop
with the execution of the scapegoat, proving that the victim was the
cause of the conflict. Enemy parties exhaust their violence on the
scapegoat, and can even turn to cooperation after the execution.
5. Sacralizing the victim - Society regards the
scapegoat as both accursed and life bringing. For example, there is
the frequent phenomenon of hating a prophet before killing him and
beatifying him after. Like Martin Luther King, or Oscar Romero or
6. Sacrificial repetition - Ritual, myth and religion
all have rules in diverting aggression and preserving society. All
three lend to violence a trademark of necessity and divine
sanction. They lend a subtle sacralizing of violence. All three
obscure human suffering and bloodshed.
Only one document exposes the subterfuges of ritual,
myth, and religion, says Girard, and that is the Christian Gospel.
Only the Gospel reveals the death of Jesus as a colossal crime
against truth, justice and God. There was not a pretext for
executing Jesus - He was the sinless, non-violent one, the perfect
human being, the very embodiment of God. His murder blew apart the
scapegoating mechanism, ripping it from the darkness of lies and
secrecy, throwing it into the light. Scapegoating cannot tolerate
the light and remain itself. In the light, it must shrivel and die.
The early Christian Church could not bear the purity and
weight of the true meaning of Jesus' execution. It could not grasp
the sheer voluntariness of the Cross, the voluntary love of His
choice. And so the belief grew that God sent Jesus to die, that
from his conception He was doomed to die, the divine scapegoat.
Theology acquired a determinism, even tinges of fatalism. The
divine/human mission to restore God's Kingdom began to fade; the
Church's unequivocal condemnation of violence and war began to
fade. The empire began to absorb Christians, exacting taxes and
military service from them.
In contrast to this view, a point made clear in John's
Gospel - Jesus freely chose Calvary out of love for us, giving us
the means of salvation, yet preserving our power of choice. By
choosing the Cross and criminal's death, He exemplified for us love
and freedom. For there is no freedom without love.
Our scapegoating and victimizing of one another killed
him, our hatred and violence. But in turn, by the power of God He
killed sin and death literally, all violence stopped in Him and
died. So Paul would reflect in wonderment: "Death is swallowed up
in victory. O Death where is your sting. O Death, where is your
victory?" 1 Cor. 15:55
An old axiom of non-violence is this: we become what we
hate. If we hate an enemy, we become an enemy. Violence begets
itself, it becomes contagious. When we react violently to violence
done us, we mimic the enemy. We become them - a law applicable to
individuals, groups, nations, empires:
When we devastated the Nazis and Japanese with weapons
more terrible than theirs, we became more fascist.
When we threatened the Soviets at Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, and at every subsequent stage of the nuclear arms race, we
become more totalitarian.
When we Arms Race ourselves, with the collapse of the
Soviet Union, we create enemies to our measure, eg. Pakistan and
When we created agency upon agency of "spies", under the
euphemisms of intelligence and security - FBI, CIA, NSA, DIA, we
began to spy upon and harass our own citizens. And civil liberties
When we scapegoat and victimize and terrorize, we lapse
into an "interchange of characteristics." The devastation we
wreaked on Indochina, Central America and Iraq now plagues us with
death of the trees, global warming, depleted ozone layer, acid rain,
erratic weather patterns, widespread radioactive poisoning. Indeed,
the violence we do to others, we do first to ourselves.
Conversely, when we go to the hellholes of imperial
policy and war, there to break laws legalizing nuclear scapegoating,
accepting the consequences of judicial charade, of separation and
prison, we accept mimetic violence into ourselves. And there it
stops and dies. In out small modest way, we repeat what Jesus
accomplished on the Cross.
Among the world's great texts, only the Gospel is
written from the standpoint of the victims. Victims have far more
radical grasp of reality than oppressors. Theirs is the
epistemological privilege - they see reality from below, they stand
under oppression because they suffer it. Girard is right - the
Gospel alone will free us from the violence of scapegoating, if we
but live its non-violent justice and love. "Let the groaning of the
prisoners come before you. According to the greatness of your
power, save those who are doomed to die." Ps 79:11.
In a wider sense, empires scapegoat both internationally
and domestically. In fact, scapegoating helps them to manage and
temper their colossal violence, so that it doesn't tip out of
control and tear them apart.
A familiar international example would be the Iraqis, a
million and a half of whom we've killed with our boycott most of
them children. Prisoners would be an outstanding domestic example -
two million Americans behind bars; 6 million imprisoned, on
probation or parole.
When the Cold War ended, and no plausible "enemy"
replaced the Soviet Union, the bosses needed a new rallying cry, a
new shibboleth. "Crime in the streets" became the new shibboleth,
replacing Communism. The bosses virtually ignored White Collar
crime, though it costs society some $200 billion a year, 50 times
more that blue collar crime Even so most White Collar crime is
"settled" out of court, never coming to trial, "Those who own
society ought to run it!"
Prisons are a growth industry - one strand in the
globalization of capital. Many factors contributed to their spread
- the decline of organized labor, the U.S. empire as international
policeman, the rise of transnational corporations and banks, tariff
and trade agreements, the international drug trade and lastly,
"crime in the streets". That propaganda is as successful as the
"Commies are coming"! An ignorant and gullible public is easily
American prisons overflow with non-violent criminals,
usually, the poor people who break the law out of economic need,
less than 14% of all crime is physically violent - the top three
charges being drug possession, drug possession for sale and robbery.
Only three % of all crime results in injury.
The privatizing of prisons is a fast growing sector.
Corporations, under contract to the government, are paid a fixed
rate per prisoner, a rate close to the bone. This results in low
wages for staff, no unions for staff and fewer services for
prisoners. Consequently, prisons are overcrowded with inferior
food, medical care, library and recreational facilities.
In every case, prison/industrial growth is firmly tied
to the downs of labor. Organized labor became toothless because of
prosperity, lack of vision and risk, abandonment of civil
disobedience during strikes, deregulation, cheap foreign labor,
lower environmental standards and absence of international support.
The drug economy crept in to fill the vacuum.
Reagan's War on Drugs disguised two aims - U.S.
government involvement in the international drug trade and
justification for intervention in the Third World. Historically,
Americans have been foremost as international drug pushers. In
fact, several "blue blood" American families built their initial
fortunes by "hooking" the Chinese on opium and then monopolizing
their silk. Cocaine began an astonishing spread in the '80's -
Colombia became both a drug whipping boy (cocaine) and a focal point
for control of Central America. Hence, the contra war in Nicaragua,
funded substantially by drug running into the U.S. The same fate
seems to await the Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico, since
Mexican troops are armed by money destined for the drug war.
Colombia, largely because of the "Drug War", is now the
world's third largest producer of heroin and cocaine. The virus
infects everyone - Colombian rebels grow both to fund and arm their
insurgency. Another consequence of the Drug War is to
internationalize the American prison population. At the federal
prison at Petersburg, I have encountered French, British, Nigerians,
Ghanaians, Afghans, Colombians, Cubans, Mexicans, Hondurans,
Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Venezuelans - to mention a few. At least,
25% of federal prisoners are foreign nationals who face deportation
Domestically, the War on Drugs is a war on the Poor.
Whites and African Americans use drugs equally, but the arrests of
people of color is five times that of Whites. Call it a pre-emptive
strike against the Poor, or a counter insurgency effort. What drugs
don't damage through addiction by disrupting families and
communities by subverting abilities to organize and resist - the
police, courts, and prisons will (or the war on drugs and mass
Increasingly, prison labor becomes a factor in the U.S.
economy. Prison labor presents no problems of unionizing, language
differences or workers' compensation. Prisoners, especially foreign
prisoners, have no rights, no protection under the 14th Amendment.
In the federal system, prison industries flaunt the UNICOR label,
and UNICOR possesses substantial military contracts, making
components for the latest weapons systems. One prisoner I overheard
called UNICOR's work "bargain basement mayhem."
Since the Cold War ended, capitalism has undergone a
speedy globalization - the world has become our "oyster". The World
Trade Organization, the World Bank, IMF, and trade and tariff
agreements like GATT and NAFTA have put vast power into the hands of
The corporate philosophy behind the phenomenal
development is immoral, cruel and ruthless - assuming that the world
is one huge market, people are basically consumers, national
resources exist only to feed this piracy, ecological destruction is
ignored, as are child labor and sweat shops. The World Bank and
International Monetary Fund impose "structural adjustment" by
cutting social services, privatizing of state industries, revising
agriculture for cash crop exports, eliminating trade laws protecting
local economies. Only the police and military receive adequate
Nor do the American people escape this gigantic
onslaught by the rich and powerful. More and more, this society
resembles Third World counterparts - welfare and social service
cuts, astronomical prison spending, massive budgets for police,
military and counter insurgency networks - FBI, CIA, NSA, DIA.
Meanwhile, basic infrastructures suffer: urban decay, unrepaired and
underfunded schools, closed libraries, unsafe bridges, top soil
loss, polluted air, soil and water, inadequate reforestation.
The disciples of Caiaphas scapegoat and kill millions.
And prisoners groan in their cells, or go to death chambers and die.
In closing, I'll restrict a few remarks to Christians,
since they profess to follow Christ.
Recently, I read a report of the Physicians for Social
Responsibility on the current status of nuclear weaponry, especially
between the U.S. and Russia. Both arsenals are on a "launch on
The Physicians quote Russian Defense Minister Igan
Rodianov: "Russia might soon reach the threshold beyond which its
rockets and nuclear systems cannot be controlled." On Jan. 25th,
1995, Russia came within 150 seconds of launching several thousand
warheads on Western Europe and North America, after misinterpreting
an American scientific rocket.
The Physician's answer to this insane horror was to
support Abolition 2000, a loose coalition of anti-nuclear groups.
They apparently considered no other option, no mention of civil
With all my heart, I agree with Gerard that the Gospel
alone will destroy scapegoating and needless killing. The Gospel
alone offers the truth and strength necessary to disarm and
eliminate nuclear terror. But the unknown quantity are Christians
and our disbelief.
Luke's Gospel (11:29) speaks of an "evil generation",
and ours is certainly that. No sign is allowed this generation
except the sign of Jonah the prophet. And that sign is the Cross -
the execution, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
Fidelity to that sign will not be easy, but it will not
be hard. His yoke is easy, and His burden light. (Mt. 11:30). We
are not to be afraid, Just believe. (Mk. 5:36)