Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 6: The Scapegoat Mechanism
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 6: The Scapegoat Mechanism

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

Last week, we reviewed how mimetic rivalry leads to resentments and anger. We explored how anger can be readily displaced, and we started to look at how growing hostilities within a community might be alleviated by finding a scapegoat.

Scapegoating works well to quell the resentment, angry feelings, and thirst for vengeance that invariably arise as a consequence of mimetic rivalries. There are two critical components for scapegoating to restore peace to a community. First, everyone must agree that the scapegoat is truly responsible for the crisis. (The scapegoat victim may not agree, but the voice of the victim has little relevance to the scapegoating mechanism since the scapegoat is exiled or killed.) This is possible because reason is easily rendered a servant to the powerful emotion of anger. If there are many angry people, their rational faculties are easily convinced that X is responsible for the problem. In addition, the accusatory gesture (that is, pointing to the prospective scapegoat and declaring, “He/She is responsible!”) is mimetic, just as all social behavior is mimetic.

Second, scapegoating must be unconscious. If people are aware that they are blaming the wrong person for the community’s rising tensions, then obviously killing or expelling the scapegoat won’t restore peace. People must genuinely hold the scapegoat responsible for the problem. This is possible for two reasons. First, as we recall, mimesis is automatic, reflexive, and not conscious, so people have little insight into their getting caught up in the scapegoating mechanism. Second, we’ve also discussed how reason tends to be subservient to anger, and “rational” thought confirms the supposed guilt of the scapegoat.

It’s not hard to think of examples of scapegoating and how all this plays out. The classic example is the Nazi scapegoating of the Jews, blaming the Jews for Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I and the suffering in post-war Germany. Some people have said, “All of Nazi Germany went mad,” but this merely avoids explanation. What happened in Nazi Germany, the Balkans, and in countless communities and families around the world has a common theme—scapegoating one individual or group of individuals in order to restore peace and a sense of well-being.

Who is the scapegoat? In general, scapegoats are peripheral members of a community who can be abused without much fear of retaliation by family and friends. They are usually seen as “abnormal,” and they may have distinctive physical or psychological characteristics, such as a limp or an inclination towards psychotic delusions. Whatever their specific characteristics, all primal (“primitive”) cultures accuse people of being “witches” who cast evil spells and give rise to discord or natural disasters. When a community experiences a crisis, as a consequence of growing interpersonal hostility or natural disaster, the mob mimetically finds and accuses one or more “witches,” whom the mob then exiles or kills.

Remarkably, with eradication of the “witches,” people generally feel much better, confirming their conviction that the “witches” were responsible for the crises. Feuding tribe members, united in their hatred of the scapegoat, feel better towards each other. In the case of a natural disaster, the sacrificial murder of the scapegoat really does seem to appease the Gods. For example, earthquakes—and other infrequent natural disasters—rarely recur in the near future. Similarly, droughts tend to end on their own accord. Consequently, the efficacy of the sacrifice seems confirmed.

Next week, we will explore how the scapegoating mechanism gives rise to religious myth, ritual, and taboo. Then, we will be ready to start applying an understanding of the scapegoating mechanism to Christian faith. Does God approve of scapegoating? If not, how might the scapegoating mechanism—hidden and unconscious as it is—be revealed?

Go on to: Part 7: Myth, Ritual, and Taboo; The Scapegoating Mechanism as the Foundation of Culture
Return to: Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence Table of Contents
Return to: Christian Living Table of Contents