Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 28: Animals as Scapegoats, part 1
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 28: Animals as Scapegoats, part 1

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

A key tenet of Girardian thought is that the scapegoating mechanism is hidden. Those who engage in sacred violence believe they are acting according to divine will and would not characterize their activities as violent or destructive. Historically, humans have often been victims of the scapegoating mechanism for several reasons. As we recall, a “sacrificial crisis” occurs when there is growing hostility within a community, which is an inevitable consequence of mimetic desire and which can be aggravated greatly by a natural disaster such as a drought, epidemic, or flood.

Just as desire is mimetic, so too is the accusatory gesture mimetic. Someone (typically a peripheral member of the community who has a physical disability or a mental disorder) is accused of demonic possession and casting evil spells. Once this person has been banished or killed, peace is restored. In the minds of those who scapegoat, this validates the victim’s guilt. As we saw, the ancient Hebrews often substituted animals for humans, which appears to have been a necessary step towards ceasing sacrificial violence altogether.

Most people believe that in this modern, “enlightened” era we have abandoned sacrificial violence. While we often go to lengths to avoid scapegoating people and making them victims of sacred violence, I maintain that sacred violence persists, with animals as frequent contemporary substitutes. One gets a sense of the sacred nature of activities that involve hurting and/or killing animals from the intense emotions expressed by those who defend these activities. Just as people tend to be most defensive of religious tenets that are difficult to justify on rational grounds, animal advocates frequently arouse anger that seems out-of-proportion to the nonviolent, compassionate message animal advocates encourage.

The motivations that underlie animal exploitation are complex. Certainly, self-interest is one factor—people want the taste of animal flesh, the feel of animal skins, the (supposed) benefits of animal experimentation, etc. However, I think factors related to scapegoating help explain why people often despise animal advocates, because animal protectionists often focus on the animals’ innocence.

Humankind’s connection with the natural world in general and animals in particular reminds people of their mortality. To many people, animals seem to lead meaningless lives characterized by struggle followed by anonymous death. (I think animals do have rich and meaningful lives, but this is not always evident to the casual observer.) When people kill animals, it gives people a sense of superiority, a sense that they are fundamentally different from the animals. I think that the act of eating animals generates a similar symbolic message—if people can consume animals’ very bodies, then people don’t feel like they are “one of them.” This might also help explain the horror engendered by stories of people being eaten by animals—it reminds people that they are 1) vulnerable to death and 2) made of flesh. Along these lines, many cultures deal with corpses in ways that avoid people seeing flesh decompose.

Next week, we will examine why animal experimenters talk about “sacrificing” animals, and we will explore how animals are scapegoats in the universal quest for self-esteem.

Go on to: Part 29: Animals as Scapegoats, part 2
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