Summer Reading Group: Monsters and Scapegoats

This is the fifth post in a ten-part series for Spectrum’s 2015 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Unclean by Richard Beck. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

The ugly, sneering villain commits an act of violence that disgusts us as we watch the beginning of a movie. Our reaction to him is deep seated and almost instantaneous. This person deserves to die. The rest of the movie is devoted to satisfying our longing for his extermination. The hero of the film does indeed vanquish his foe at the end of the film, usually in a dramatic one-to-one face off. And something deep in our gut rejoices to see the monster get what he deserves.

Most Americans have probably seen a thousand movies with this plot line. It is an old story, but one that still stirs us with passion at a pre-rational level. Our gut-level reaction to the despicable monsters we see in movies can serve as a warning to what we are capable of on a smaller scale. The temptation is to deny that we have a dark side capable of mistreating others. But Beck’s chapter “Monsters and Scapegoats” makes the point that every human heart is predisposed to dehumanize the “Other.”

Beck begins the chapter by citing examples of socio-moral disgust which are extreme and easy to observe. Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews is one example. The Jews were dehumanized by being compared to rats and other vermin and then scapegoated as the reason Germany lost Word War I. Most people can see that scapegoating itself is morally wrong. However, once the group feels fear and disgust towards ‘the monster,’ the scapegoating process can proceed without individuals feeling any pangs of conscience. Something more primal than thought has taken over the group and they will not be satisfied until the monstrous is forcibly exterminated.

All of this may seem very far away from where you and I live. We are not currently directly engaged in any kind of ethnic cleansing or violence. And yet, Beck argues, we would do well to look inside ourselves and become aware of our own tendencies of monster-making and scapegoating. Much like cancer, catching it early may save us in the end. As Christians, we should be very wary of the scapegoating process, because that is exactly what happened to Jesus, even though he was entirely innocent. He was considered a monster by the religious community of his day, and ultimately put to death. He was considered dangerous because of his friendships with those on the fringes, who were outside, of respectable society.

We can attempt to detect our internal “monsteritis” before it becomes destructive to ourselves and others by asking ourselves some simple questions: Do we have friends outside of our group? If you are a Democrat, do you have friends that are Republican? If you are a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, do you have friends who don’t go to church? Friends that are Muslim? Atheist? Do you have friends that have a different ethnicity than you? Pushing ourselves to grow in these areas is a great way to counteract our tendency to judge the “Other” as unclean and somehow subhuman. The more we can see others as part of the human family, the better we will be able to treat them. Theological reflection on God being the Father and all humans as God’s sons and daughters can go a long ways in helping us elevate the “Other.”

Here are other very helpful questions to ask: How do we treat service professionals? Do I see the girl ringing up my groceries as a human being or as part of the machinery? Is she only a means to an end? Or does she deserve a look in the eye and a smile? Beck uses a great story to drive this point home to his students. He asks them to imagine that one of their friends got a job waiting tables. They get together one night to go the restaurant where the friend is serving and ask to be seated in her section. However, when they arrive, they noticed she is flustered and running behind on everything. “How would you feel about this?” Beck asked his students. “We would tell her to take care of the other tables first and try to encourage her.” “How much of a tip would you leave?” “We would still leave a large tip.” Now, imagine the same scenario with a waitress who no one in the group knows. Is there any mercy or compassion? Probably not. Will the tip be high? Probably not. We naturally support our “own,” those we perceive as “in” our group. Those on the outside naturally receive lesser treatment. But the conscious act of treating a service professional according to the golden rule, as a fellow human being, is a great start for confronting the seeds of “monsteritis” that are waiting to grow inside of us.

When I was attending the Seminary at Andrews University, I was looking for a way to make a few extra dollars. A friend of mine hooked me up with a job as a golf caddy at a very prestigious golf club, called Lost Dunes about 30 minutes away. The membership for this club was $50,000, so it wasn’t for everybody. Some of the members would fly in on their private helicopters from Chicago to play. The rich and powerful were my clients. However, after about six months, I quit the job, even though the money was good. I just got tired of being treated like the golf cart. I wasn’t a human being to most of these golfers. I was part of the machinery that was only noticed when it malfunctioned. Ever since that time, I have had a soft spot in my heart for service professionals who live on tips. I have made it a practice to tip a set amount regardless of the level of service. I have tried to remember to smile and look people in the eye and to humanize everyone that I interact with. This is something I regularly fail in doing because I’m in a hurry or distracted by thinking about something else. But I continue to try, because I recognize how important it is for me to practice.

In the end, although this chapter highlights the somber point that we all struggle with dehumanizing the other, I believe that Beck offers us hope and a way forward as well. When we get to know people outside of our group, it changes the way we view them. Instead of allowing religion to legitimize the scapegoating process, I envision a church filled with people who practice religion modeled after the example of Jesus who consistently looked for ways to reach out to and include those on the outside.

Will Johns is currently serving as the pastor of worship, community outreach, and discipleship at the Beltsville Adventist Church in Beltsville, MD.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7053
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What would you call what happened in San Antonio? The violence has already started; and the cleansing is soon to follow.

Violence defined:

  1. swift and intense force
  2. rough or unwarrented force of power
  3. damage through distortion or unwarrented alteration
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Will, thanks so much for this. You are getting at something so important. I think as humans we have made strides in broadening our circles of empathy but we have much work still to do.

It is difficult to know how to navigate between empathy and fear, kindness and self-protection. We are constantly being fed messages of fear and “othering” as it is an easy route for power acquisition, but it is so destructive.

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Neal Wilson:. Though we walk the fence, Adventists lean toward abortion rather than against it.

Because we realize we are confronted by big problems of hunger and overpopulation, we do not oppose family planning and appropriate endeavors to control population.

http://www.thethirdangelsmessage.com/open_letter_ted_wilson

Observe the picture and consider if violence occurred. (Warning: graphic)

I’ll never apologize for suggesting that the atrocity of dismembering living babies without anesthesia in Adventist institutions dwarfs all other moral issues in the church and more than any other thing will bring its downfall.

I have compassion for those who ended their babies’ lives in utero–some of them are in my family and they never felt judged by me.

But the right to live is far more foundational than the right to be ordained.

This isn’t about the Bible to me. This is about not tearing up living human beings. It’s existential.

And I’ve participated in assisting a doctor do that act, so it is not an area outside my experience.

It’s unfortunate that it took that experience to inform my moral judgment, but no amount of rationalization can ever erase that experience from my very being.

If “population” becomes the problem, babies become the scapegoat.

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This is insensitive to those who have had to make some terrible and very personal decisions. To rub salt in old wounds is beneath a Christian.

Should we remind a couple who divorced that they broke the commandment and committed a grave sin? If one is forgiven, those sins are forgiven by God and never remembered again. Should we do less? This would be unconscionable simply to remind others of their sins. God has never called us for that purpose. The past is past.

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I agree. To have an elective abortion is never an easy decision. The pain felt by the woman going through that experience is more emotional than physical. But she is in charge of her own body, and she alone must make the decisions concerning it. It’s atrocious [and unchristian] for a group of people somewhere far removed from the scene to take it upon themselves to make that decision for her. Come on, people. God created mankind with free will. We now must grant every person the right to make her own choices in all things – especially regarding her own body.

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Does anyone here believe that the government should decide your religious beliefs? Where you can and cannot work?

When any institution comes between an individual in making the most personal decisions it will have descended into dictatorship (see China where reproduction is carefully monitored, even forced abortions. When those who advocate against other people’s most important life decisions, this nation’s citizens will no longer be free but subjects and slaves.

I continue to struggle with Beck’s argumentation. This chapter, I found his position regarding “scapegoating” over-exaggerated. Your example is excellent in this regard. When we feel anger toward a villain, it may be about many things besides disgust. We might feel rightfully angry because the villain is cruel and/or unjust. We may wish to see him killed (or at least stopped) to remove the very real threat he poses to the hero. We may even feel sympathy for the villain, even as we recognize his death is narratively necessary. These reactions are not about disgust, but about other desires and feelings of in/justice, goodness, love, etc. The villain does not need to disgust us to be hated and/or feared. Fear of harm and death is not the same as disgust, although they may at times overlap. A monster can be beautiful and attractive and still dangerous. (Perhaps like the snake in Eden?) Conflating all these emotions into one basic “disgust psychology” does not deepen the conversation, rather it removes our ability to distinguish gradations and nuances and the complexity of life and emotion.

we always talk about the scapegoat. the other goat was killed on the spot…Which goat got the better deal?

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Thanks, Will. A connection I found really helpful in this chapter is the one made to Peter Singer’s description of the “the moral circle,” which includes those we identify as “kin” and excludes “non-kin.” The practical question I was left asking when I read this is how one moves more people from the outside in and the practical limitations of trying to do this (you can’t make everyone “kin.”) Your suggestion that we need to be deliberate in forming real relationships with people who are different from us is helpful. This changes the way we think and makes it more difficult to ideologically strawman or marginalize others we identify as belonging to the same group. I found this to definitely be true in my own life.

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When therapeutic abortion occurs, the fetus does not have pain receptors or a functioning brain. I wish radicals would quit trying to make the fetus out to be a human being – which it is not.

When I was a newborn, the doctor noticed I was tongue-tied. She immediately clipped the frenulum [the tissue beneath the tongue which connects it to the floor of the mouth]. I may have uttered a temporary response to the “pain” but the action never caused any type of permanent memory. I only know this because my mother told me about it later. It’s the same type of “surgery” conducted on male babies when they’re three days old [or more]; the same knife which is used to perform the circumcision is the knife which was used [after sterilization of course] to clip my frenulum.

Let’s not magnify the surgery conducted on fetuses. They don’t think or feel; their physical manifestations are purely reflexive. They don’t remember this later. And in the case of a therapeutic abortion, it may be sad to lose a child, but to cause mental breakdown in the mother from forcing her to bear a child when her situation can’t handle it is a far worse crime against humanity.

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Thank you, Jeannie, for bringing this up. The whole idea behind circumcision is to make ‘freaks’ out of the sons of Abraham, such that the daughters of men would avoid intercourse with them. However, it is the most common direct cause of ED, when the foreskin is clipped to short to allow a full erection without pain. The Creator did NOT create the imperfect male. And it is a loathsome god which infers otherwise.

Trust BEing!

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 It's always difficult to connect the headlines of Spectrum, which are kinda clickbait to the articles which are attached.  They start out ostensibly as a Bible study or, like this article, a book review but always turn into an odd, nearly off-topic stream of consciousness application of some small part of the book.  
 I understand that the above opinion is unkind and I apologize if it hurts Will Johns' feelings. I agree that self proclaimed Christians tend to view people unlike themselves (The Other)  in extremely stereotypical ways (Catholics should be spoken to briefly-if at all, folks who ask you for help only want drinking money.)
 I clicked on the headline expecting to see some discussion of the on-air killings in Virginia, the Charleston church shooting, the movie shootings, or some of the many other headline-for-a-few-weeks.  A discussion of why we rush to promote the victims to semi-sainthood and portray the tortured and twisted perpetrators of the killings as larger-than-life monsters would have been welcomed.