Scapegoating and Forgiveness: Part III

We're carrying on a conversation from the past few days, feel free to get caught up before reading this one.

Empathy for offenders (when and where it's possible) begins with seeing ourselves as we truly are: people who are just as capable of creating offense as receiving it. Unfortunately, this is not something that can be taught and learned, it can only be discovered. Sadly, we tend to discover this truth only when we find ourselves on the outside of a group, banished, with no false group identity to protect us from seeing ourselves as we really are (this is, again, Girard's thought).

When we recognize the truth about ourselves, then we recognize that there is no great divide between ourselves and other people who cause harm (even, perhaps, our offenders). Now, again, I'm not suggesting there is no moral distinction between a victim of rape and a rapist but, I am suggesting that, over the course of a lifetime, all of us cause harm and are capable of much more. If we discover this about ourselves, then we don't see ourselves as people above wrongdoing.

The goal in viewing ourselves as wrongdoers is not to shame ourselves for being wrongdoers but to simply see ourselves accurately and to discover exactly how much grace and love we receive from God (and, hopefully, community). We do not need to see ourselves only as wrongdoers but as people who miss the mark, people who struggle to live out our certain way of seeing. This is what allows us to empathize with others. We recognize our struggle, and that means we can recognize that others struggle as well. Most people do not get up in the morning with the intention of ruining people's lives. There are, of course, exceptions, but most people cause harm because they are struggling. This means they are not so different from ourselves.

Side note: Of course we’re not going to empathize with every offender and we do not need to empathize with every offender. However, it never hurts to learn to view ourselves accurately and to find a more nuanced perspective on the world in the process. In this case, we discover that we are not only victims of our offenders. Our identity can be much larger, if we can see ourselves accurately. Learning to see that offenders have an identity beyond their offenses is a tangential benefit.

Scapegoating and Forgiveness

Rene Girard developed a very popular theory for societal behavior, generally referred to as Mimetic Theory. It goes like this. People learn through imitation. We learn to imitate behaviors (obvious), but we also learn to imitate desire. I learn to want what you want. Think about keeping up with the Jones’: My neighbor wants a Porsche, all of a sudden I want a Porsche. That is mimetic desire- it is wanting what other people want- not just doing what other people do. Because we all learn to desire what everyone else wants, humans are inevitably in competition with one another. This causes conflict and chaos. The only way we’ve found to deal with the conflict and chaos is to find someone to blame and to remove this person from the society (or group). This is called the Scapegoat Mechanism.

So, in an addicted family system, it’s easy to blame the substance use disordered person for all of the family’s problems and to banish this person from the family. On a societal level, it’s easy to blame immigrants for economic problems if we aren’t doing well financially, and banish them from the country.

You get the idea. It's a way of thinking about complex problems as if they were simple so that we don't need to find a complex solution. Simple solutions are always preferable. The problem is, they are only solutions if they actually solve the problem they are meant to solve.

When it comes to forgiveness and resentment, we may look for simple solutions when complex solutions are the only ones that will address the heart of the matter.

More on this tomorrow.

Seeing ourselves as we are

I know I have not lived a perfect life. I know all the things someone could accuse me of doing, some of which would lead to heaps of shame thrown in my direction. I know not only what I’ve done but what I’m capable of doing. We’re often capable of doing quite a bit more than we think (in a bad way).

Because I understand the depths of me, I do not feel that I occupy the moral high ground in my relationships. Because I do not have the moral high ground, when someone harms me, it is because they are similar to me, and not because they are different.

Because they are similar to me, I have the capacity to see the offenses done to me as part and parcel of life lived around (and with) other humans. This does not mean I don’t get my feelings hurt, or that I don’t get angry, or that I don’t want revenge, etc. It simply means that, with some distance, I can find some level of empathy for my wrongdoers (even if it’s not very much, and even if it takes many years and many miles to get the distance I need).

Learning to see myself accurately, as a person who has caused and will cause much harm, opens up in me the knowledge that I live in need of God's grace. When I live in awareness of that, it is harder to gang up on others and heap shame upon them. I don't live in that space all the time but, when I do, it's for the better. Seeing our own need for grace can open up the possibility of forgiveness when it otherwise might not be there.

More on this tomorrow.

Practicing Repentance: Part III

From yesterday:

Acts of repentance drive us further apart because, when we repent in our culture, we have confirmation that the wrongdoing took place, which means our anger is justified, which means we can ramp up our wrath and our shame and whatever else.

This is a grave mistake. It is a good thing when someone confirms a wrongdoing has taken place. Why? Because this is the very thing that confirms the victim’s story, a rare win when most accusations fall on deaf ears. When a victim’s story is confirmed, there is an opportunity for justice to happen. For this reason, repentance can represent the good on several fronts.

It can, theoretically, draw victim and offender back together and offer their relationship hope for a second act (or third act or fourth act). It can offer the offender hope for a new life beyond their former destructive ways of living. Let’s not forget- so often people find themselves trapped in a cycle of wrongdoing in part because they do not believe they can transcend the pattern itself.

Offenders need hope for themselves in order to stop offending. Should they stop, this would be good not just for themselves but for all possible future victims as well. It is good both for the offender and the people around the offender as he or she moves forward in life. And, lastly, failing those first two things, repentance creates the possibility for justice when such a possibility might not otherwise exist.

When someone is willing to repent and confess, be careful in how you respond. That confession may just be a good thing for all involved.

Practicing Repentance: Part II

While it’s true that our culture cares neither for wrongdoers or confessors, as we said yesterday, we also live in a narcissistic culture where it is completely normal for wrongdoers to find clever ways to avoid blame, or to appear contrite, or to victim blame, etc. These are complicated times. I am not suggesting that every appearance of repentance be met with mercy, but I am suggesting that the ability to earnestly repent is a good thing, though it may not solve the problem (depending on the scope of the offense and the relationship between the victim and the offender).

It is difficult to conceive of a particularly Christian version of forgiveness or repentance under such circumstances. It is assumed, in the Christian tradition, that forgiveness and repentance are restorative and rehabilitative both for individuals and communities. In other words, these are actions that necessarily bind us together rather than tear us apart. Such a view is not modeled for us anywhere in our culture, and only rarely in the church.

Acts of repentance drive us further apart because, when we repent in our culture, we have confirmation that the wrongdoing took place, which means our anger is justified, which means we can ramp up our wrath and our shame and whatever else.

What can we do about this?

Practicing Repentance: Part I

We live in a culture that is completely clueless about how to handle wrongdoing. Our only responses (at least, publicly) are shame and wrath, and we pour them out by the truckload. In fact, we treat wrongdoers who confess in exactly the same fashion as wrongdoers who “deny ’til they die.” In other words, it’s just as bad, if not worse, to confess to wrongdoing as it is to simply be caught in the act (or accused) because we will shame you both for the wrongdoing and the confession. Given the level of outrage we muster for those who are caught in the act, one might logically assume we would appreciate finding someone brave enough to confess that they “got it wrong” and, hopefully, desire to seek a new way of being in the world as a consequence of what they have discovered about themselves. If you assumed that, though, you’d be wrong.

We do not appreciate confessions nor do we appreciate the spoken desire to change. Our response to confessions and the beginning of an amends is generally this: You didn’t confess enough, or you didn’t use the correct combination of words, or you’re attempting to steal a victim’s thunder, or you’re being disingenuous, or you’re silencing a victim, and so on and so forth. However the confession is framed, confessions are never good enough for us. Under these circumstances, why would anyone confess? Why would anyone repent? Why would anyone make amends? There is no good reason to do so.

Side note: When it comes to repentance, we do not, in fact, need a good reason to do so other than the desire to reflect God’s call to love and to do so through living in truth and attempting to compensate those we have harmed (by whatever means are available to us). Yet, at the same time, it’s easy to see how quickly repentance can be de-incentivized with the appropriate level of negative reinforcers.

More on this tomorrow.