"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Scapegoats (Sunday, October 2, 2011)

            I didn’t plan on talking about baseball this morning, really I didn’t. Because I always get the feeling that when I do, I kind of sound like George Will, talking about… Bruce Springsteen—something he just doesn’t (really) understand. Or I sound like George Will talking about baseball, which is almost as bad.

            I didn’t plan on talking about baseball. I was going to look at the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, and the historical and religious role of the scapegoat. But then, events of the past week (of last Wednesday night, to be precise) reminded me of the long, jaded connection between scapegoats and baseball, so here we are. Talking about… the Chicago Cubs.

            The Chicago Cubs haven’t been to a World Series since 1945. (They haven’t won one since 1908.) According to a website called “The Cubs Are Losers” (.com), in the years since the Cubs won the World Series:

  1. The radio was invented.
  2. Four states have been admitted to the Union.
  3. The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  4. The television was invented.
  5. The U.S. went through the Great Depression.
  6. The U.S. has participated in two World Wars and three major armed conflicts.
  7. The National Football League was founded.
  8. Man landed on the moon.
  9. Halley's comet has passed the Earth-- twice.

And so on...

But faith abides, and hope springs eternal, and the year 2003 was going to be different, Cubs fans said. Sure enough, that year, the Cubs made it to the National League Championship Series, and were playing the Florida Marlins for the title. They were at Wrigley Field in Chicago; it was the eighth inning of Game Six, with the Cubs ahead in the series, three games to two. The Cubs were ahead, 3-0; they were just five outs away from going to the World Series!

            The batter for the Marlins was Luis Castillo. With the count at 3 and 2, Castillo hit a long foul ball toward the left field wall. As Cubs outfielder Moises Alou reached for the ball, so did a Cubs fan named Steve Bartman.  Bartman  got there first. The ball bounced off his hand and into the stands. The Cubs pleaded for a call of fan interference, but the umpire said no. So, Alou was still alive, and he got a hit; so did the next Marlin batter; and the next. The Florida Marlins went on to score seven runs in the inning; won Game Six; then Game Seven—and they (and not the Chicago Cubs)  went to the 2003 World Series (against the New York Yankees, of course).  

            That did not make poor Steve Bartman too popular in Chicago. He had been a Cubs fan all his life; he coached Little League. But now, he was the Most Hated Man in the Anerican Mid West. He was led out of Wrigley Field with a police escort. People booed him; hissed at him; called him names. Some even threw beer cans and trash at him. He had become the scapegoat for all those decades of the Cubs’ failure; the cause of all those fans’ pain and despair and heartbreak.

            Now, rationally, of course, we can say that it wasn’t Bartman’s fault. He didn’t throw the pitches that let the Marlins score seven runs. He didn’t strike out in the ninth, or fail to get on base. He didn’t decide whether or not to change pitchers or send in a pinch hitter. (Others in Chicago still blame the “Billy Goat Curse” rather than Bartman for the Cubs’ failure: It’s all the fault of a curse placed on the Cubs by a billy goat who was denied entrance to a World Series game at Wrigley Field in 1945; the Cubs haven’t made the Series since; it must be the goats’ fault; he cursed us, some Cubs fans say.)

            Of course, we know rationally that this is nonsense. It isn’t the goat’s fault that the Cubs lose. The ancient Hebrews knew that, too, I think. They probably understood that the scapegoat wasn’t really carrying their sins away into the wilderness. But they did understand, those ancient folk, an important psychological truth: that there is often something deep within us that needs a scapegoat sometimes, that needs someone to blame for all our ills.

            “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars…”

            But in the Jews.

            In the Muslims.

            In the gays.

            In the immigrants.

            In the blacks. In the whites. In the Asians.

            In the Democrats.

            In the Republicans.

            In the rich. In the poor.

            In anyone you can imagine.

            In anything there, handy to blame—

            That’s why “we are underlings.”

            Or, as the rap group Atmosphere sings in their song, “Scapegoat”:

            “It’s the east coast, no it’s the west coast,

            It’s public schools, it’s asbestos…

            It’s sleep, life, and death,

            It’s speed, coke, and meth,

            It’s hay fever, pain relievers…

            It stretches as far as the eye can see

            In reality… it’s everything but me,

            On and on and on and on,

            The list goes on and on and on and on,

            The list goes on and on and on…

            The Ancient Hebrews knew that we have within us sometimes this need to pile our blame on someone or something, this need to unload all of our rage and shame and guilt. So, rather cleverly I think, they instituted the ritual of the scapegoat as part of their Day of Atonement observance:

            Bartman, they would throw their trash and wine bottles at it. Then it would be led into the wilderness, where it would have to fend for itself, cut off from the community.

            The purpose of this ritual was to make the goat the substitute for all of the sins—individual and collective—of the community. It allows a group of people not to have to take responsibility for their own failings or those of others, but to put them on something outside of themselves. But at least ancient Israel had the compassion and the good sense to choose a non-human subject for its substitute. All too often in human history, we choose other people as our scapegoats. We turn that person into an object; we de-humanize them; we see them as the cause of all evil, all of our problems, a tool of the devil. And then, we would have them cast from our midst; banished—or, in extreme cases, even annihilated.  

            There have been variations on the theme over time. As one of my colleagues has written: “When you look down through… history, it seems like every culture has a place for the scapegoat—and usually, no one ever volunteers for the job.”

            And sometimes, it really was a job; what people did in life. I’m sure you’re heard of the term “whipping boy”. It’s a figure of speech we use now to denote someone whom everyone piles their blame for something on (kind of like the scapegoat). Well, there really were literal “whipping boys” once upon a time—young, impoverished orphans, whose duty it was to be punished for the wrong-doings done by the prince, whose tender, royal skin (I suppose) couldn’t be touched. So, if the prince did something wrong—the whipping boy took the lash.

            Whipping boys didn’t volunteer for their positions; but “sin eaters” did. Back in Wales in the 16th century, there were people who made their living by eating the sins of others. Here’s how it worked back then: When a person died, his (or her) family would lay the body out in his (or her) coffin, and then put a loaf of bread on top. They would then carry the coffin outside, still topped with the loaf of bread, and that’s when they’d call in the “sin eater”. The family would pay give the sin eater the loaf of bread, a bowl of beer, and sixpence, and the sin eater would agree to devour the bread, and with it, consume all the sins of the deceased. That way, the dead person could go to heaven without sins on his (or her) soul, and the family could get on with its life, without worrying about the fate of their loved one. They got peace of mind, and the sin eater got bread, beer, and sixpence. A win-win situation!

            Now, all of this arcane historical information might be very interesting and all—but how does it pertain to us, modern men and women in this modern (or is it post-modern?) world? We don’t have literal scapegoats, whipping boys, or sin eaters any longer, so why should we care?

            Obviously, because scapegoats and whipping boys are still alive in our world today, figuratively if not literally. (I don’t know about “sin eaters”; that might just qualify as “arcane historical information”. But then  again, the way the economy is going, maybe it is a profession that could make a comeback.) As we have seen from the lists above, we still scapegoat others in our society today. It happens with sports teams. It happens in churches and workplaces. Sometimes, families will scapegoat one or more of their members—blame them for everything that has gone wrong, every problem the family has faced, all those times when reality did not live up to the ideal.

            Those who are scapegoated are usually the have-nots of society; those who cannot fight back or defend themselves; those who are powerless, marginalized, outcast. But not always. The danger with scapegoating is that too readily the tables can get turned, and sometimes, we who once felt safe can find ourselves in the scapegoaters target scope.

            About three years ago, a man walked into the Unitarian Universalist Church of Knoxville, Tennessee, pulled out a gun, and started shooting. He killed two people and wounded seven. Why did David Adkisson do it? Apparently, he was a fan of right wing talk radio (he especially liked Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, it seems) and, after hearing over and over again all the terrible things that “those liberals” were doing to the country, Adkisson decided to do something about it. He knew that Unitarian Universalism was a “liberal religion”, so he figured there must be a lot of liberals at the UU church, so he went there and started shooting them. They were his scapegoats for all of the problems America faced.

            In Norway, this past summer, a right wing extremist named Anders Brevik didn’t like liberals either. He didn’t like the way the liberal government was opening Norway to so many immigrants, for whom he had no use either. So, he rowed over to the island of Utoya, not too far outside of Oslo, where there was a youth camp run by the governing Labour Party, and shot and killed 69 people, mostly teenagers and young men and women in their twenties.  

            Anyone can become a scapegoat. That’s something the Jewish people have known for centuries. And that black people have known. And gay and lesbian people. And immigrants to a new land. And, sadly, that our Unitarian Universalist brothers and sisters in Knoxville know too well now, and the people of the lovely land of Norway.

And when people have not just sticks and stones and beer cans and taunts and obscenities— but guns, too—or hijacked airplanes—or all manner of technological mayhem-- scapegoating can be very dangerous indeed. Look at the mayhem of Nazi Germany to see what mayhem scapegoating can bring.

Before we start scapegoating others, then—blaming someone other than ourselves for the problems we face-- let us have the wisdom to stand back, and consider, and remember that the measure with which we judge another can so readily (and explosively) be turned back upon us, in the flicker of an eye.

The ancient Hebrews were psychological geniuses in a way, because they knew that, oftentimes, the weight of the past can hold us down. It can get in the way, and sap all of our energy and strength, and hold us back, if we don’t have some way of expiating—getting rid of—all of our past misdeeds and mistakes. So they devised an ingenious ritual for unloading all of that psychological garbage onto the back of that poor, despised scapegoat. Pile all of that sin up, then let the goat run free, off into the wilderness, never to be seen or heard from again.

But the choosing of the scapegoat was only the first part of the Atonement ritual. For our Jewish ancestors also knew that getting rid of the torments of the past was useless, unless it led to a new start, a great turning, a great change of heart, an At-One-Ment with our Creator.

“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once said. “Let us move forward [then] with strong and active faith.”

“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.”

Our challenge as religious men and women is how we choose to act in the face of this life, over which we so often have no control. Will it be arrogance or humility? Hostility or hospitality? Do we choose to serve, or do we choose to blame?

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