Institutions and the Scapegoating Process
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Institutions and the Scapegoating Process

Last essay, I discussed some practical difficulties with institutions. Cultural anthropologist René Girard has argued that all human institutions are grounded in the scapegoating process. He claimed that humans establish institutions in order to separate the community from those who are seen as purveyors of evil. This way, the community can maintain cohesion in the face of crises and bitter rivalries, because scapegoats are blamed for angry feelings that would otherwise tear the community apart. Consequently, exclusion is a central component of human institutions. For more on Girard’s thinking, one can read his book Violence and the Sacred. I have summarized Girardian thought in the first chapter of my book Guided by the Faith of Christ.
If Girard is correct, or at least on the right track, then exclusion is also a central component of religious institutions. It seems to me that there is much evidence supporting this view. Nearly all churches claim that their own followers have a special relationship to the divine, and a common theme among religions is that only their own faithful adherents will enjoy a happy afterlife. Further, religions typically refuse to countenance views that deviate from their orthodoxy. This helps maintain institutional cohesiveness, which is not necessarily bad, but it can also promote harmful practices by prohibiting criticism.
It has always been tempting to scapegoat – to attribute excess guilt to one or a minority of individuals and thereby absolve the larger group of wrongdoing. Institutions can easily participate in scapegoating by labeling nonbelievers or critics within their ranks as “evil” or “possessed” by demonic forces. The end result is often violent and always unjust.

So, how do we have communities of faith while avoiding the pitfalls of institutions? I will offer some thoughts about this next essay. 

Go on to: Can Christian Communities Avoid Scapegoating?
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