The scapegoat in Benghazi

cc photo “Goat” by Edwin IJsman

On news that the United States ambassador to Libya was murdered, many are questioning how and why such a terrible thing could happen. Various answers have been put forth, ranging from the religious to the political, but each attempt merely looks at a single aspect of the killing, not the whole. In trying to come to a better understanding of the situation, I believe René Girard can be of some help.

Girard’s most famous theory, that of mimetic desire, says that we do not desire things simply because we desire them, but because others desire the same thing. We mimic those around us, which leads to violent impulses and the war of “all against all”.1

“The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them”

In many cases this mimetic desire results in the formation of an angry mob. “Every time you add one,” Girard has said, “the move towards the unity of the mob becomes faster, it has more power and attraction.” As more people join, as the media reports on it, as more people are talking about it the mob gains momentum.

At this point the violent impulses must be suppressed. A victim must be found and punished, what Girard calls the scapegoat2, an accessible target of the mob’s violence whose death (or expulsion) restores balance to the community. The scapegoat is not referred to as such, in the eyes of the mob it is the actual source of the problems, because the larger object of violence is often unreachable.

In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (chapter 12), Girard says:

The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the

In the case of the riots in Libya, could we say the American embassy was the scapegoat? The rioters, angry over blasphemy against Muhammad, saw America as the enemy but could do little against a far away nation. The ambassador and embassy building represent America and are therefore suitable outlets for violence.

The root cause is our innate brokenness and desire to blame the Other

This seems to be at the root of the type of violence we see in Egypt and Libya. Sure, we can look at religious answers or we can look at the geo-political issues surrounding the violence, but neither of those go deep enough. The root cause is our innate brokenness and desire to blame the Other and restore harmony to our community.

Finally, I think it would be good to caution against creating a scapegoat of our own in our desire to understand this. We can look at someone like Terry Jones, who enjoys inciting religious violence, and label him a crazy. Because we only are interested in self-righteous condemnation, he and his small group of followers thus become our scapegoat. Ultimately, we haven’t actually moved forward.

Update: This post was written immediately after the attack, before all of the details were known. It is now clear this was an intentional attack, not a spontaneous one. The point still stands, I believe, no matter what the impetus for the attack.

[1]: I am indebted to John H.’s post at Curlew River here.

[2]: For the Christian, or anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the scapegoat is a familiar idea. See Leviticus 16.

Happy Thanksgiving

"Cornucopia", CC photo by brownpau

Almighty God,
Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you
for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world
by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray,
give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts
we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up ourselves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages.

Red, White and Jesus

Happy Independence Day.  In honor of America, red, white and blue has been added to this otherwise boring cross shape.  It’s Christian, it’s American.  Perfect.

Yes, I am poking the hornet’s nest.  I want to know if you think this is okay.  There are a little over 1 billion Christians in the world, while only about 300 million or so Americans.  Can we as American Christians take two things we love and shove them together?  Is it good for America/ good for Christianity to do so?  I want to hear the wheels turning on this one.

Is there such a thing as a Christian nation?  We live in a free country, where freedom of religion and expression are guaranteed rights of every individual.  For many, that means we can practice Christianity openly and without fear.  But the “establishment of religion” by the state is strictly forbidden.  We do not live in a Christian nation the way Muslims in Iran or Afghanistan live in Islamic nations.  We have separation of church and state; in those countries the church is the state.  Ever hear of Islamic Law?  Americans are not ruled by Christian law.

Sound Christians principles may be good for ruling America.  But look at the red, white and blue cross again.  Is that good for the cross?  God established nations and thrones, and ordains the events of history.  Heaven and earth will pass away – and that includes this great nation.  Does making the cross of Christ overtly American demean the Gospel in some way?  How do Christians in Russia feel about that cross?  Or China, India or Ethiopia?  I’m sure blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus has no problem with it.  But what about the New Testament Jesus?  You know, the one that was Jewish.

I’ve been American since the day I was born.  My dad was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, and my grandfather fought in World War II.  I am not a veteran, but do teach American history.  I have been a Christian since age 12.  I am not ashamed of the Gospel or Jesus’ name.  But think about the issue at hand a few moments and decide how you really feel.   How mixed together should our Christianity and patriotism be?  I feel very strongly both ways: let me know what you think.

A Hymn for Christmas Day

Why doth the sun re-orient take
A wider range, his limits break?
Lo! Christ is born, and o’er earth’s night
Shineth from more to more the light!

Too swiftly did the radiant day
Her brief course run and pass away:
She scarce her kindly torch had fired
Ere slowly fading it expired.

Now let the sky more brightly beam,
The earth take up the joyous theme:
The orb a broadening pathway gains
And with its erstwhile splendour reigns.

Sweet babe, of chastity the flower,
A virgin’s blest mysterious dower!
Rise in Thy twofold nature’s might:
Rise, God and man to reunite!

Though by the Father’s will above
Thou wert begot, the Son of Love,
Yet in His bosom Thou didst dwell,
Of Wisdom the eternal Well;
Continue reading

Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Most hymnbooks that I’ve seen only include stanzas 1, 6 and 9 of this classic carol, but there are many other excellent verses that should be highlighted during Advent and Christmas. Here are my favorite four to sing during this time of year.

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion, death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below, evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bare the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore!

Readings for the 3rd Week of Advent

Monday: Isaiah 8:16-9:1, Luke 22:39-53, 2 Peter 1:1-11
Tuesday: Isaiah 9:1-7, Luke 22:54-69, 2 Peter 1:12-21
Wednesday: Isaiah 9:8-17, Mark 1:1-8, 2 Peter 2:1-10
Thursday: Isaiah 9:18-10:4, Matthew 3:1-12, 2 Peter 2:10-16
Friday: Isaiah 10:5-19, Matthew 11:2-15, 2 Peter 2:17-22
Saturday: Isaiah 10:20-27, Luke 3:1-9, Jude 17-25

Readings for the 2nd Week of Advent

Monday: Isaiah 5:8-12,18-23, Luke 21:20-28, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.
Tuesday: Isaiah 5:13-17,24-25, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, Luke 21:29-38.
Wednesday: Isaiah 6:1-13, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12, Matthew 6:6-15.
Thursday: Isaiah 7:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Luke 22:1-13.
Friday: Isaiah 7:10-25, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5, John 8:34-36.
Saturday: Isaiah 8:1-15, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18, Luke 22:31-38.

A Thanksgiving Day Collect

Almighty and gracious Father,
we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we beseech thee, faithful stewards of thy great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Source: Thanksgiving Day Collect, The Book of Common Prayer: And Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David: According to the Use of the Episcopal Church (New York: The Church Hymnal Corp., 1979), 194/246.