(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, The Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Approximately three thousand years ago in ancient Israel, Solomon was King of the Jewish nation. He built what was then considered one of the seven wonders of the world – the Jerusalem Temple. Each year on the tenth day of the seventh Jewish month, Temple priests gathered to lead the celebration of Yom Kippur which literally means in Hebrew: ‘Day of Atonement.’ Jews from all of Palestine came to Jerusalem for this holiest of Jewish holidays. Nine days from now, Jews all over the world – even secular and liberal Jews – will celebrate Yom Kippur.
Solomon’s Temple, in ancient times, was an immense edifice built of solid blocks and whitewashed so it gleamed in the sun. It was divided into several courtyards to separate people of different grades of alleged holiness. The outermost courtyard was reserved for women – who were considered the least holy. The next was for non-Jewish men. The next was reserved for Jewish men over the age of thirteen. Next came the courtyard for Temple Priests. Finally, at the innermost point of the Temple, was the Holy of Holies structure into which only the High Priest – the religious ruler of all Jews – could enter.
On Yom Kippur, two goats were randomly selected and brought to the courtyard of Priests. One goat was ritually sacrificed. Its throat was cut, it’s blood drained into a large bowl, and its flesh burned on an altar.
The High Priest took the bowl of blood into the Holy of Holies. This was where the Ark of the Covenant was kept and where Yahweh was said to dwell. Before he entered the Holy of Holies, something the High Priest only did on Yom Kippur, a rope was tied around his waist so the other priests could pull him out in case he was blinded by the presence of God. Once inside, he sprinkled the goat blood over the Ark as an annual gift to Yahweh.
Back outside, the High Priest took the other goat, placed his hands firmly on its head, and ritually transferred a year’s worth of Jewish sins and misdeeds into it. A young priest then took this goat far into the Judean wilderness where he let it go. In this way, Jews atoned for their sins. Their anger, lies and moral failures were cleansed from them and placed into the abandoned goat. From this ritual, the term ‘scapegoat’ was derived to now mean an innocent person who is blamed for the bad actions of another.
During October, my three messages will focus on what I believe are three scary Halloween costumes we might wear – today, that of the scapegoat, next week, the prima donna, and then finally the hypocrite. While these might be actual costumes to wear, they are also attitudes many people practice everyday. Despite the inherent goodness I believe is born within each person, too often we allow our egos to take control and feed our fears, resentments and selfish desires. We can become figurative demons – scapegoats, prima donnas or hypocrites – that are frightening to ourselves and others.
For today’s message, the term scapegoat came from the Jewish Yom Kippur ritual, but people of all cultures often blame others for their failures. Indeed, scapegoating usually increases in times of hardship for an individual or a community. Women who acted slightly different were accused of being witches during the Middle Ages and Puritan era. Any drought, crop failure or disease was blamed on witches who were believed to have been seduced by the devil – much like Eve in the biblical garden of Eden. These women were tortured and usually executed by drowning or burning at the stake. They were the scapegoats of their time.
During the 1920’s and ’30’s, when post World War One Germany’s economy was in ruins, the Nazi party rose to power based almost entirely on their accusations that Jews, liberals and homosexuals were subverting the power and integrity of Germany. Hitler appealed to people’s fears and resentments through scapegoating.
Today, demagogues in the U.S., Britain and France target immigrants, Muslims and blacks as a way to appeal mostly to white men who suddenly no longer have all the power. As scapegoats, immigrants are blamed for unemployment and declining incomes. All Muslims are blamed for terrorism. Blacks are blamed for national deficits because they supposedly take more than they produce.
Psychologists say that scapegoating is a hostile act done to shift responsibility away from a threatened group or person. It serves the need of the group or person to both feel better about themselves while ignoring ways to correct their own failures. Instead of doing the difficult work to fix true causes of a problem, it’s far easier to blame and punish another. Identify a scapegoat and a problem is solved.
Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, said that it is a common tendency for people to shadow cast. The dark parts of me that I inwardly hate, my insecurities and failures, are shadow cast on someone else, all in order to avoid looking at my ugliness. “My failures in life are not my fault,” I can smugly tell myself.
Since it’s the fault of others, I can only make things better by venting anger and frustration on, for instance, a parent who perhaps didn’t toilet train me properly, on a teacher who did not recognize my intelligence, gave me an ‘F’, and supposedly kept me out of Harvard, on a spouse or partner whom I believe does not show me respect, or on a hispanic woman who got the high paying job that I deserve.
To punish my scapegoats, I’ll often support demagogues who promise to make my nation great again by ending immigration, outlawing Islam, promoting racist laws to restrict opportunity and equality, or restoring a supposed form of morality. Hitler was a classic scapegoater. So were, in American history, Huey Long, Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell.
One problem with scapegoating is that I can both play the victim – while also victimizing others. In other words, I can make myself a scapegoat, and I can scapegoat others. The classic scapegoaters I just mentioned did this. Psychologists say this attitude is fundamentally a problem of control. Who and what do I believe controls my life? Do I believe I am outwardly controlled – that other people and forces are responsible for what happens to me? Do I think my successes are due to luck and my failures due to the malicious actions of others? Do I see myself as a victim and my life as hopeless?
Or, do I believe I’m inwardly controlled, that I am mostly responsible for my success or failure? Do I believe I have the ability to identify my deficiencies or setbacks and then work to correct them? Can I change the way I cognitively think about life – to be a mostly positive, hopeful and caring person?
One funny story from a therapist relates how a husband in a marital counseling session exclaimed, “My wife is totally to blame for all that is wrong in our marriage!” “Do you really believe she is 100% responsible?” the therapist asked. “Well, no,” the husband admitted after pausing a moment. “Her mother is at least partially responsible!”
Experts say those who frequently play the victim, or scapegoat others, believe good events in their lives are caused by luck. Bad events are caused by other people or pure chance. Perpetual victims and scapegoaters have difficultly controlling emotions of anger, fear or resentment. They irrationally vent, yell and blame. They are generally unable to reason and think through an issue. They usually refuse to look within themselves to find reasons for their failures. When a scapegoater engages in an argument, he or she spends most time thinking how the other person is wrong – never conceding the other might be correct. And, when truly challenged, people who scapegoat rarely persevere to find ways to heal and overcome. Instead, they give up, quit, or end a relationship.
Simply because some are false victims or stay stuck in victimhood does not mean there are not heroic victims. A heroic victim is one who finds ways to move beyond and overcome. In essence, if someone has hurt me, or maliciously made me a scapegoat, do I then always self-identify as a victim? Or, do I take control of my victimhood? Do I refuse to be demeaned, speak up and re-assert control over my destiny? Do I protest, do I become an activist, and do I find the inner strength to forgive, change, heal and ultimately overcome?
What inspires me are the true victims throughout history who have refused to play the role of victim. The steadfast and stoic attitudes of black slaves who held onto their dignity and taught it to their children, the organizers of the underground railroad, blacks who sat at all white lunch counters or in the front of buses, who marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, who build vibrant black neighborhoods and businesses, who today march in Charlotte, Tulsa, and Ferguson insisting that black lives matter – such people do not play the role of victim. They refuse to be scapegoated.
I also admire those who were raised in dysfunctional households but who find ways to overcome their hurts by looking inward, taking control of their lives, and seek healing through counseling and introspection. Such persons are victims only in the past. As self-aware people, they forgive and let go. It may sound cliche, but we are only victims if we think we are victims.
Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote that during the darkest hours of his time in Auschwitz, he could not and did not allow the guards to strip him of his humanity. For him, that meant to love and serve others. He intensely focused and meditated on the profound love he had for his wife. He focused on helping, as he could, prisoners less fortunate than himself. He wrote of the example of a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz who one day jumped into a large vat in which rancid grease had been stored. The man rolled around in it and smeared the stinking grease residue all over himself. The guards derisively laughed at the man.
Later, back in the communal cabin, the man took off his clothes and tore them into nine strips, all smeared with grease. He then fashioned a crude Hanukkah menorah so he and others could light and celebrate that holiday. The man, like Frankl, defied the Germans, refused to play the scapegoat, and undertook ways to serve and love – instead of also engaging in scapegoating.
Such attitudes are ones any of us can adopt. We can take off the scary scapegoat mask forced on us by others. We can assert our control by communicating with the offender, by establishing future boundaries to prevent added hurt, by asserting our dignity and demanding respect, by forgiving, by working to build reconciliation and, most important, by rising above fear and hatred to instead love.
From a spiritual perspective, asserting control over our thinking and the way we live is key to self-awareness, empowerment and peace. No matter what comes at us – illness, the end of a relationship, genuine hurts caused by others – only we have the power and ability to heal ourselves and overcome. If we turn inward, we’ll find the strength to fight back non-violently, we’ll recognize the trap of self-pity, we’ll see our flaws and ways we can grow, we’ll let go of our egos and belief that life is unfair and we don’t deserve to suffer like any other person.
By engaging in the task of inner exploration, by taking control over our destiny and our identity as a scapegoat or victim, we can find the keys to more contentment. Equally as important, we will no longer feel the urge to make others a scapegoat in our revenge.
The mantle of being a great person, the mark of being a great nation, is never in blaming others. It’s in identifying the faults within oneself and changing them. It’s in refusing to lash out with anger, frustration and blame at others – even if they truly are persecutors. By letting go, by forgiving, by serving and caring and loving and healing – never tearing down but always building up – our nation and each of us as individuals will achieve the kind of greatness that endures.
To choose to wear a scapegoat mask, one is truly scary. Being forced by others to wear a scapegoat mask is even worse. Blacks, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, women, gays, the physically and mentally challenged – they all know the sting of being a scapegoat. What is remarkable about these groups of people is they also know the joy of triumph and victory! To refuse to be a scapegoat, to pursue being a gentle, humble, caring, empathetic, forgiving and assertive overcomer – that is a costume, a robe of truth, that we should all aspire to wear.
I wish you each much peace and joy!
Interested in thoughts on how to prevent / stop hateful scapegoating in our nation – to look inward instead of outward – for accepting esponsibility for many of our national problems…..
Let us close our service this morning with a few moments of meditation or prayer – while Mary plays some soft background music.
We are grateful people – for life, for the beauty of nature outside our windows, for this time together in friendship and love. Let us depart from here renewed in some way – with enlarged perspectives, with open hearts to friends and strangers, with peace of mind…
May they carry us through the week ahead so that we are gracious, generous and caring.
May we heed the message this day – to find within ourselves the power and insight to grow……to heal……to lift up, but never to blame. (Wait)
Let us now share our peace and our greetings with one another. Join together in the Quimby room for coffee, snacks and friends.