Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Trayvon Martin as Scapegoat

            Rene Girard undertook one of the most generative and controversial intellectual experiments of the 20th century.  Girard observed what he called “mimetic rivalry” in both ancient myth and modern novels.  The concept is easy enough to understand.  We learn what to desire, Girard argued, by observing and imitating the desire of others.  Three toddlers are playing quietly.  An adult introduces a new toy into the room.  One of the toddlers approaches the toy.  Suddenly all three toddlers want the toy.  The rivalry between the toddlers was generated by the desire of one for the new toy.  The others, seeing its attraction and its singularity become instant rivals for its possession.  Others show us what is desirable.  When the supply of desirable objects is limited, there is conflict.  This rivalry and violence is visible at the beginning of all human culture.  Unless the problems associated with this rivalry and violence are addressed, a coherent culture cannot form.
To overcome these twin problems early societies ingeniously fixed on the solution of sacrificial violence.  An individual or group was deemed guilty of instigating the conflict and subsequently sacrificed.  This temporarily reduced the conflict as the larger group came together to eliminate the one or ones supposedly guilty of generating the original violence.  This “founding murder”, Girard argued, is at the origin of every great society.  But to be effective such sacrifices need to be repeated.  Someone needs to be blamed.  Someone needs to be sacrificed.  The society needs to find unity around an individual or group it can despise and blame for all its problems.  Girard called this figure “the scapegoat.”  He argued that it was Judaism and Christianity that began the process of exposing this mechanism.  The Old Testament gives the victims a voice.  Stories like those of Joseph, Job, and Israel itself demonstrate that the victim is not always guilty of the crimes it is charged with.  And the victim, as the Psalms demonstrate, will not always remain silent.  In his death on the cross Jesus, the quintessential scapegoat demonstrated the ugliness and violence at the heart of the scapegoat mechanism.  He became the scapegoat to end all scapegoats.
            A frightened people produce scapegoats--people who fear additional rivals for limited resources; people who want things to stay as they are; people who want to hang onto their power.  An effective scapegoat has to be someone weaker, someone more vulnerable, someone in the power of the majority.  For centuries in western Europe it was the Jews: they were accused of poisoning Christian wells, stealing Christian children, and cheating Christians in business. In times of fear outbreaks of violence against the Jews became a release valve.  Scapegoating of the Jews suffered a blow in the wake of World War II and Hitler’s ultimate act of scapegoating.  But it has never disappeared.  In the United States, various waves of immigrants served the role of scapegoats: the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, and now Asian and Hispanics.  But the most convenient, the most despised, and most abused of our scapegoats have been the African-Americans.  Enslaved and abused for centuries, they were kept uneducated, powerless, and impoverished.  And yet they were feared.  This fear only increased in the south with their liberation.  And young African-American males were among the most fears and despised.
From and post Civil War era until post World War II southern trees sprouted what Billie Holiday hauntingly called “strange fruit”.  African-Americans were hung, drowned, dragged to death behind horses, and simply beaten to death.  These were often spontaneous lynchings brought about by some real or imagined crime.  The country seemed to slumber through most of this horrendous violence until Emmet Till.  The death of this young man in 1955 at the hands of vicious racists for some supposed slight, shocked the nation.  A few years after Till’s death I was working at service station in my hometown, Nashville, Tennessee. I was about 10 or 11 years old.  A friend and I were washing a car in one of the bays while mechanics were working on a car in the other.  Since Till’s death, the civil rights movement had been gathering steam.  Kennedy had been elected and pressure was being bought to bear on the violent regimes of the south.  A notorious local character was bragging to the mechanics while they worked on his car.  He had recently gotten out of prison.  One of the men asked him if he had ever killed anyone.  He answered, “Well, I killed a couple of n****** once.  But that was back when it was still legal to kill n******.”  They all laughed.
It was not legal to kill anyone, black or white, in Tennessee.  But they all knew what he meant.  No jury in the South would convict a white man of the murder of a black man.  The men who murdered Emmett Till knew that.  The men who killed the little girls in Birmingham knew that.  The African American males who were beaten to death in police custody, or weighted with chains and dumped in the middle some murky lake, would never be vindicated.  Their murderers slept serenely in their beds.  These young men were scapegoats.  Their deaths unified a fearful community.  Their murders reaffirmed the values of the community and the social order that sustained it.  Of course, such things were not unique to the south.  Young black men were beaten to death in northern jails; shot to death by northern cops; unmourned by northern whites.  Young black men are still targets of opportunity for the fearful and angry.  They are still, harassed, beaten, and imprisoned in appalling numbers. 
Trayvon Martin has become the face of all these often-nameless young men.  Whatever the circumstances of his death, he was a young man minding his own business that became the victim of fear, paranoia, and the will to power.  He became a victim of our death dealing love of guns and our feeble minded inability to think of a different way of confronting our differences.  He became the latest in a long line of young African Americans to die as a Scapegoat.  But as Girard pointed out, the scapegoat mechanism has been shown for what it is.  The cross has exposed our violence, our fear, our envy and greed.  The mechanism has been fatally wounded.  We hear its failure in the voices raised against this senseless death.   Girard was worried that without the scapegoat mechanism our culture would fall once again into rivalry and violence.  Our political divisions, so intractable, so vicious, seem to support his viewpoint.  Only the power of non-violent love—the power of the cross—is able to confront our fear, our dependence on blood and violence, our scapegoating, and our will to power.  But Christians have frequently gone in for scapegoating and violence in spite of the cross of Jesus.  Girard could not be said to be sanguine about our future.  And neither am I.  I am not optimistic.  I know our adolescent love of violence; I know our infantile addiction to power, especially the power of the gun.  But I also know the redeeming power of God, the possibility of repentance and reconciliation. I am not optimistic.  But I have hope.

John E. Phelan, Jr.


  1. With all due respect (no platitude, as I do) - It sure would be nice if people just strove for justice on a personal basis, instead of conveniently hanging their hat in the media spotlight. I believe that the issue of racism itself - can be a *thing* society needs to find unity around an individual or group it can despise and blame for all its problems.

  2. I saw this on, good article.

  3. Thank you for writing this piece. Very helpful lens on all this madness. One additional note: we can't forget the LGBTQ community in our talk of scapegoats.