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: Part II

Scapegoating is s a way of placing all of the blame for a given set of circumstances on one person (or relatively few people) even though blame is always, always, always more complicated than that. The act of banishing gives the remainder of the group a false sense of security because we believe, for a time, the source of our conflict has been discovered and resolved. But it does not stay resolved, because we did not locate the true source of conflict.

According to Girard's theory of Mimetic Desire, the true source of conflict is ourselves. In other words, each person is capable of violence, harm, or wrongdoing. Each person on this planet is capable of destroying lives. Not everyone does, but we certainly have the capacity to. Recognizing this truth about ourselves removes the Scapegoat Mechanism as a possibility. Why? Because we recognize that we can’t blame one person for a problem that exists within each member of the entire group. When we recognize the truth about ourselves we find empathy for the scapegoat, knowing that scapegoating is just one more false strategy we pursue in life.

Now, this is not a way of saying that every victim and every offender are moral equivalents. That is most certainly not the case. It is more about how we see ourselves and how we posture ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. If we see ourselves as entirely innocent, as entirely pure, as only a victim of circumstances, then we will struggle with rage, we will struggle with resentment, we will lack empathy, we will be rigid, we will be isolated, and likely more.

If we see ourselves for who we are, there is the possibility that our hearts will crack open, even if it's ever so slightly, and we will discover a state of acceptance. We will find that, while life is not fair, the world is not out to get us. There is a big difference between those two things.

More on these last two paragraphs tomorrow.

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.