Giles Fraser: In support of the scapegoat

24 January 2007

“THEN AARON shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilder-

ness . . .” (Leviticus 16.21).

Ever since I experienced what feels a little like a second conversion that came about through the theology of René Girard, the idea of scapegoating has become a concept central to my understanding of Christianity.

A community is fraught with internal conflict and division. Just as the self-destruct button is about to be pressed, a rather unlikely culprit is dredged up, often a bit weird and different — certainly, somebody who looks the part as the bearer of blame.

Instead of self-destruction, the community focuses guilt on an almost randomly chosen victim, and casts it out. Previously warring factions thereby unite against the scapegoat, accusing it of all the communities’ ills.

Sometimes, the scapegoat is lynched and murdered. Some strange old biddy is accused of witchcraft and drowned in the river. It happens all the time, from the workplace to the playground (and the church). It is the ever-present logic of bullying.

And we are all so easily complicit. As the evil eye of blame looks around the community for a victim who stands out, we shrink away, wanting to hide in the crowd. As the victim is chosen, I am relieved that it isn’t me. And so I bay along with the rest, the volume of my condemnation proportional to my cowardice, another way of saying, “Not me. I’m normal. I’ll fit in.”

That’s why I want to stand up for Jade Goody. Her bullying in the Big Brother house was precisely that. And, yes, it was surely racist, too. But that has given us all the excuse and the alibi to bully her in turn.

As she was evicted from the house into a storm of abuse, the country was piling upon her head all the racism of our communities, getting her to take the blame that is just as much our own. She has become the modern-day witch, pelted with rotting apples and dunked in the river of fake tabloid outrage.

She is so much easier a target precisely because she has such an unsympathetic way with her. But if the Church is to resist the scapegoating, it has to stand up for unsympathetic characters. That’s when it matters most. Otherwise, we are no different from the cowards at the cross with our weasel cries of “Crucify.”

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

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