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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 Archbishop Gerardi.

            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 India.

            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 evaporated.

            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 bent.

            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 on release.

            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 imprisonment will.)

            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 transnationals.

            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 funding. 

            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 warning" basis.

            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 resistance.

            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)