Israel, the Internet, and Purging the Scapegoat

Scapegoating goes viral.

In his new book A Farewell to Mars, my pastor-at-large Brian Zahnd spends some time on the powerful theme of scapegoating.  This is not my full review of the book (that's coming soon), but it is a quick riff. Because this theme struck a particular chord, considering the way people so often engage in this destructive social practice. I think we've been seeing an extreme example of scapegoating in the Israel-Gaza conflict. And I think we see it happen in smaller ways all the time - perhaps especially on the Internet.

Zahnd describes scapegoating this way in Chapter 3 of his book:

When a group of people becomes an angry, fear-driven crowd, the groupthink phenomenon of mob mentality quickly overtakes rational thought and individual responsibility. The mob takes on a spirit of its own and the satanic is generated...
The crowd has the demonic instinct to select a scapegoat— a sacrificial victim to bear the sinful anger of the crowd. As soon as the scapegoat is identified , the crowd proceeds to blame, shame, accuse, vilify, and possibly murder the scapegoat...
This “escape valve” of sacrificing a scapegoat is highly effective in producing a sense of well-being and belonging within the crowd. Human beings have been utilizing the “scapegoat mechanism,” as René Girard calls it, since the dawn of human civilization. It’s the blood-drenched altar of civilization. It’s the Cain model for preserving the polis. It’s collective murder as the alchemy for peace and unity.

Recently, my wife and I watched a movie from a couple years ago called The Purge (the sequel having recently come out in theaters). The story, like so many these days, is set in a dystopian not-too-distant future when American society has survived chaotic wars to achieve untold peace and a near cessation of violent crime. Similar to The Hunger Games, there is a dark tradition that acts as a catalyst for this peace. It's called The Purge, one night every year when any and all crime, including murder, is allowed and will go unpunished by law enforcement.

The Purge is marketed as an opportunity for those with pent up anger or violence to purge those feelings by engaging in a murderous kind of catharsis. It is hailed as the primary reason there is such peace and tranquility the rest of the year, and it is treated with reverence as a kind of sacred ritual. And as we watch, we learn that it is ritualized scapegoating, par excellence. 

Mobs roam the streets to murder the societally underprivileged toward whom they feel anger for abusing the welfare system (the poor are especially vulnerable during The Purge). Likewise, privileged white neighbors plot to exact vengeance on the uppity overachievers in the gated community who flaunt their upper class success. In all directions, there is the belief that an enemy exists that deserves this purging of anger to be unleashed on them. And the result is "collective murder as the alchemy for peace and unity."


Israel's Scapegoat

Whether one accepts Rene Girard's theory of atonement or not, it is hard to deny that the gospel of Jesus, his teaching alongside his atoning death and subversive resurrection, were a powerful witness against the scapegoating tendencies of his first century audience.

And yet we have, currently, a startling example of scapegoating happening in current-day Israel. Hamas is a brutal, manipulative regime in the Gaza Strip, leading a constant violent campaign against Israel. And yet, the recent siege of Gaza by the Israeli military (now in temporary ceasefire) has been disproportionately deadly, killing hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians. Whenever the murderous nature of their response is brought up, the Israeli government quickly kneejerks to the "terrorist" nature of Hamas and Israel's right to defend themselves. There have been reports of some Israelis celebrating the rockets landing just miles away on homes, schools, and hospitals in Gaza.

The disproportionate, murderous response to Hamas is a function of exaggerating the enemy in order to justify the grand venting of anger through the "escape valve." The crowd approves. Catharsis is achieved. Sinful anger is purged (for a moment). Dissenting voices in Israel advocating for peace are overwhelmingly dismissed. Killing will bring about peace and unity (for a moment).


On the Internet

The intimate anonymity of the Internet often leads to destructive, pathological social behaviors - just read some YouTube comments. And scapegoating is a common practice. Exaggerating the evil of an online enemy is followed by the crowd's angry taunts and finally the attempt to destroy the target's credibility or at least wage the psychological warfare of harassment. In the process, the mob's sinful rage is vented and a sense of peace and unity befalls them.

Parody accounts have become increasingly common on Twitter, and these are especially effective for targeted scapegoating. Some parody accounts are relatively harmless and humorous, but some are vicious and vitriolic. Under a veneer of sarcasm and snark, they aim to prop up the scapegoat by twisting and exaggerating their supposed evils, so that the crowd might assemble, attack, and destroy them.

Recently, a parody account that targets Christian author Rachel Held Evans began blogging sans the snark - and revealed the darkness beneath the parody. Their post was a serious defense of the popular conservative catch-phrase that Christians are all doing "better than we deserve" because we all, as sinners, deserve hell. The blogger quickly brought this into the context of Rachel's rebuttal concerning matters of violence and abuse, especially toward women. I've rebutted this as well - abuse is not "better than we deserve." Abuse is horrific, undeserved, a crime perpetrated against an innocent victim. God sees it this way too, weeping with the victim and standing in their defense.

But this parody-tweeter-turned-serious-blogger actually went so far as to post a picture of a woman's bruised face, with these words displayed over the image: "You deserve so much more." Here, the parody account that has attempted to demonize and scapegoat a Christian author, and lead a crowd against her, has revealed their own true darkness. Misogyny and violence wrapped in an ultra-Reformed theology of hell.

Perhaps this can serve as a lesson for all of us who are tempted to join in the scapegoating of someone else, whether in real life or on the Internet, on whatever side of the theological and political aisle. Perhaps we've joined in the past in smaller or larger ways. Perhaps we can learn something from those experiences too.

Scapegoating relies on exaggeration. It is not concerned with the truth. It is the crowd's way of venting rage as a means of staying united. In Kierkegaard's words (via Zahnd), "The crowd is indeed untruth. Christ was crucified because he would have nothing to do with the crowd."

Whether in Israel or on the Internet, maybe it's time to stop purging our crowd's sinful anger and purge the scapegoat system itself.

Maybe it's time to participate in a better way, the way of Jesus, the way of the gospel of peace, the way of the atoning cross and subversive resurrection.