The Politics of Good Friday: We Must Stand With the Innocent When They Suffer

By Jason Scott Jones Published on March 25, 2016

One of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers was the French anthropologist Rene Girard, whose study of myths across many cultures brought him to stark and disturbing conclusions. Reading the stories of peoples from every corner of the earth, along with the West’s, and comparing them to real historical events taught him one central truth about human society: It is goaded and fragmented by the nature of human desire. We learn what to want by seeing what other people have, which tempts us to try to take it away from them. In Christian terms, this is Envy, which Thomas Aquinas considered the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins. Indeed, it was Satan’s envy of God that drove him to revolt, and his envy of Adam’s happiness that drove him to lure our first parents into sin.

Girard didn’t view things in Christian terms, not yet. He was a standard-issue secular French intellectual when he launched his academic career. But studying man’s myths and reading his histories, he saw the same pattern repeated over and over again: People imitate each other’s desires, and conflict ensues. Not everyone can be top dog, and those who achieve high status are strongly motivated to shove their competitors down. In return, the have-nots are driven to vengefully tear social structures down. With dismal predictability, this conflict turns ugly and bitter, and threatens to break society into mutually hostile pieces.

Then some person or group comes up with a solution, an explanation for the chaos and poverty that result when cooperation collapses. No, they don’t find the real cause of the problem. That would be too radical. Instead, they locate some person or group on whom they can pin the blame for the fighting and mutual hatred. It isn’t that our society as a whole has a fundamental problem. No, that’s the fault of some evil troublemakers — the Jews, the clergy, the genetically “inferior,” or the “fundamentalists” — who are hogging too many resources, or corrupting people’s minds, or otherwise throwing sand in society’s gears. Destroy them, exile them, imprison them, and all will return to normal.

The tragic thing is that this mechanism works. Locate some innocent, harmless person or group, make them a scapegoat for all of society’s evils, and by some bitter magic, society is unified once again — in hatred for the scapegoat, and the righteous effort to punish it for its “sins.” It won’t last forever, of course, and sooner or later a new scapegoat will need to be found, so the bloody cycle repeats itself over centuries, in every human society. The Nazis, who practiced scapegoating with an almost unmatched intensity, found one victim after another to take the blame for the fact that the real Germany didn’t live up to their fantasies: First the Jews, then the handcapped, then the Gypsies, the Slavs… the list kept on getting longer. As Hannah Arendt noted, by the end of the war Hitler was planning to sterilize every German afflicted with heart disease or other serious illness.

Seeing this grim phenomenon that crosses human cultures, Girard was tempted to despair. It was only the figure of Jesus that puzzled and fascinated him. Here was a scapegoat, a single man chosen by the angry mob, the secular state, and even the religious authorities, to die as the price of maintaining the fragile peace. But he did not angrily protest his innocence. He forbade his friends to fight on his behalf. From the cross itself, he offered no rebukes, but said instead, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

And Girard meditated on that. Jesus’ story was different from all the others. He had gone to the cross without protest. In fact, he had even predicted it, and told his apostles that such suffering was critical to his mission. Could the figure of Jesus be exactly what mankind needed, a universal warning against the temptation to follow the crowd in hounding its scapegoats — a reminder, indeed, that each of us will be judged by what we have done for “the least among us,” which surely includes the persecuted scapegoat?

From that deep ethical insight, Girard retraced his steps to the Christian faith of his youth, and when he died in 2015, he was perhaps the most famous Catholic intellectual on earth.

In my own way, I found that the painful events of my youth led me to the same truth that Rene Girard unfolded with scholarly exactitude. I lost my daughter to a forced abortion, and resolved at age 17 to spend the rest of my life fighting against such callous cruelty, on behalf of the helpless and marginalized — beginning with the unborn. That led me to other groups who were subject to hate and abuse on the part of the powerful: the Christians of South Sudan, the homeless in U.S. cities, the Christians and Yezidis of ISIS-occupied Syria and Iraq.

I wonder if thinking of Jesus as a scapegoat, and other innocent scapegoats as images of Christ, could serve as the critical backstop against extremism that our politics desperately needs. Whatever you value most — and as a conservative I’d have to pick “freedom” — make sure that your pursuit of it doesn’t harm the helpless and vulnerable. Make the effects on the vulnerable the litmus test of your actions and your policies. Do nothing that could turn any innocent person into a scapegoat, or deprive him of human dignity. That’s a red line you cannot cross.

We need a Good Friday politics. We must internalize the habit of standing with the vulnerable, of defending the unjustly persecuted, as Mary and John stood steadfast with Jesus until he died. We don’t want to be with the crowds that chose Barabbas, of course. Nor do we want to be like those apostles who ran away, including Peter. Here is a fascinating discourse by Girard himself on Peter’s panic, his surrender to the passion of the scapegoating mob:

 

Instead we must stand with those who are suffering, even when it seems like there’s no way we can help them except to pray.

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