By Rev. Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Theologian, teacher, award-winning author, and President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX
In a recent article in America magazine, Grant Kaplan, commenting on the challenge of the resurrection, makes this comment: “Unlike previous communities in which the bond among members forges itself through those it excludes and scapegoats, the gratuity of the resurrection allows for a community shaped by forgiven-forgivers.”
What he is saying, among other things, is that mostly we form community through demonizing and exclusion, that is, we bond with each other more on the basis of what we are against and what we hate than on the basis of what we are for and hold precious. The cross and the resurrection, and the message of Jesus in general, invite us to a deeper maturity within which we are invited to form community with each other on the basis of love and inclusion rather than upon hatred and demonization.
How do we scapegoat, demonize, and exclude so as to form community with each other? A number of anthropologists, particularly Rene Girard and Gil Bailie, have given us some good insights on how scapegoating and demonization worked in ancient times and how they work today.
In brief, here’s how they work: Until we can bring ourselves to a certain level of maturity, both personal and collective, we will always form community by scapegoating. Imagine this scenario: A group of us (family or colleagues) are going to dinner. Almost always there will some divisive tensions among us – personality clashes, jealousies, wounds from the past, and religious, ideological, and political differences. But these can remain under the surface and we can enjoy a nice dinner together. How? By talking about other people whom we mutually dislike, despise, fear, or find weird or particularly eccentric. As we “demonize” them by emphasizing how awful, bad, weird, or eccentric they are, our own differences slide wonderfully under the surface and we form bonds of empathy and mutuality with each other. By demonizing others we find commonality among ourselves. Of course, you’re reluctant to excuse yourself and go to the bathroom, for fear that, in your absence, you might well be the next item on the menu.
Moreover, we do that too in our individual lives to maintain balance. If we’re honest, we probably all have to admit the tendency within us to steady ourselves by blaming our anxieties and bad feelings on someone else. For example: We go out some morning and for various reasons feel out of sorts, agitated and angry in some inchoate way. More often than not, it won’t take us long to pin that uneasiness on someone else by, consciously or unconsciously, blaming them for our bad feeling. Our sense is that except for that person we wouldn’t be feeling these things! Someone else is blame for our agitation! Once we have done this we begin to feel better because we have just made someone else responsible for our pain. As a colorful commentary on this, I like to quote a friend who submits this axiom: If the first two people you meet in the morning are irritating and hard to get along with, there’s a very good chance that you’re the one who’s irritating and hard to get along with.
Sadly we see this played out in the world as a whole. Our churches and our politics thrive on this. Both in our churches and in our civic communities, we tend to form community with our own kind by demonizing others. Our differences do not have to be dealt with, nor do we have to deal with the things within ourselves that help cause those differences, because we can blame someone else for our problems. Not infrequently church groups bond together by doing this, politicians are elected by doing this, and wars are justified and waged on this basis – and the rich, healthy concepts of loyalty, patriotism, and religious affiliation then become unhealthy because they now root themselves in seeing differences primarily as a threat rather than seeing them as bringing a fuller revelation of God into our lives.
Granted, sometimes what’s different does pose a real threat, and that threat has to be met. But, even then, we must continue to look inside of ourselves and examine what in us might be complicit in causing that division, hatred, or jealousy, which is now being projected on us. Positive threat must be met, but it is best met the way Jesus met threats, namely, with love, empathy, and forgiveness. Demonizing others to create community among ourselves is neither the way of Jesus nor the way of human maturity. Loyalty to one’s own, loyalty to one’s religion, loyalty to one’s country, and loyalty to one’s moral values must be based upon what is good and precious within one’s family, community, religion, country, and moral principles, and not on fear and negative feelings towards others.
The lesson in Jesus, especially in his death and resurrection, is that genuine religion, genuine maturity, genuine loyalty, and genuine patriotism lie in letting ourselves be stretched by what does not emanate from our own kind.