Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Reader Writes: Jesus's Death as a Scapegoat Abolishes Scapegoating in an Ultimate Way

Not only do the gospels suggest a constant overriding concern on Jesus's part with the quality of relationships, they also suggest his intent concern to subvert the preconceptions that some people have about human relationships. In particular, Jesus was constantly concerned to subvert the pretensions some of us have to a "natural" superiority over others--a superiority based on social or economic status, national origins, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

And here's what a Bilgrimage reader, Mark 13 Fs, said here several days ago in response to my posting about the decision of my spouse Steve's niece to invite him to her wedding while pointedly excluding me: 

Dear Bill and Steve, 
I am so sorry. I believe that one of the meanings of the sacrifice of Jesus is that the human (indeed primate) habit of scapegoating and abusing those understood as lower rank is over. His action of accepting ultimate scapegoating in human history depotentiated scapegoating and abolished rank in an absolute way. It is especially tragic that those who claim to represent Jesus are still practicing such scapegoating and rank conscious abuse. As a parent, I have never "gotten it" how someone can scapegoat, abuse and "disown" another family member for anything, especially about who they choose to love. Love such as yours should be cherished and supported. While I believe the supply of love is infinite, the demand is so limited, especially when we humans chose to scapegoat and abuse others who are exactly like us, people of God.

I find Mark's commentary powerful and moving theological analysis. Mark seems to me to be saying that human beings (perhaps primates in general) have built into us the need to establish hierarchies, distinctions making some of us higher at the expense of others deemed lower. This tendency, which may be hardwired into us from early in our genetic history, also demands scapegoats. 

Since how can we keep the hierarchies in place without choosing targeted others as victims, to demonstrate the power of the powerful and the powerlessness of the powerless . . . ? 

But, then, Jesus: who took it on himself to accept the "ultimate scapegoating" in order to "depotentiate" (a wonderful word) all scapegoating. Jesus "abolished rank in an absolute way." Hence the tremendous tragedy, as Mark notes, that "those who claim to represent Jesus are still practicing such scapegoating and rank conscious abuse."

On the cross, Jesus dies along with the victims of history, of systems that create invidious higher and lower distinctions which result in the crucifixion of those tagged as other. On the cross, Jesus dies along with all the scapegoats of history who are singled out as sacrifices in order to keep these invidious systems of hierarchy alive--to serve the needs of those who dominate in each hierarchical system.

As liberation theologian Jose Tamayo suggests, though, with his recent critique of the new encyclical of Popes Benedict and Francis on faith, when we begin to speak of Jesus as one who accepted ultimate scapegoating and thereby identifies himself absolutely with the victims of history, then we can no longer sustain the language of patriarchy--of the "natural" right of men to dominate women--that has so long been for many believers the very backbone of the Christian tradition. Nor can we sustain the languages of heteronormativity and homophobia that flow from the belief in the "natural" (and therefore God-given) right of heterosexual men to dominate others.

Jesus's death on the cross as the ultimate scapegoat depotentiates those vocabularies of male domination and female (and gay) submission. Jesus's death abolishes this language and the hierarchical system of higher and lower that flows from it in an absolute way.

Theologian Margaret Farley writes the following in her magisterial work Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (NY: Continuum, 2006):

The majority of contemporary theologies eschew the kinds of gendered hierarchies of the Christian past.  Few if any theologians today argue that women are intellectually inferior to men.  Not many argue that a binary division of gender characteristics (men are strong, women weak; men are active, women passive; men appeal to requirements of justice, women to compassion; men prefer principles, women focus on relationships) applies absolutely.  So theological claims for gender hierarchy are to some extent removed or moderated, the most contestable attributions of gender characteristics have faded, and in some theologies gender plays a completely new and transforming role.  There is, however, no serious or widespread move to eliminate the binary construction of gender as such.  Yet within Christianity there is some basis for doing just this, at least in the context of relationships among Christians (140).

If she's correct in this analysis, then what to make of the Vatican (including Pope Francis) and the Catholic bishops throughout the world? What to make of the ongoing refusal of the men in Rome and their satraps in the local churches to inform religious women of the real crimes for which they're under suspicion and interrogation--an ongoing problem Colleen Baker discusses yesterday at her Enlightened Catholicism blog?

At the very least, what we have to conclude is that--and isn't this astonishing?--the men who run the Roman Catholic church have not yet caught up to the news that the "kind of gendered hierarchies of the Christian past" are done for. They're done for in the everyday lives of Catholic practice of many Catholic layfolks. They're done for in the thinking of a majority of Catholic theologians.

Margaret Farley and Mark 13Fs suggest that these gendered hierarchies were done for from the very outset of Christianity, with Jesus's death on the cross. It seems the men in Rome have . . . centuries . . . of catching up to do, doesn't it?

If they want the gospel message they proclaim to have any real meaning in the real world in which most of us live, that is . . . . And that catching up is nowhere so imperative as in the area of their preconceptions about gender and gender roles--and the interconnected area of their thinking about sexual orientation. Francis's papacy will represent a real departure from the legacy of John Paul II and Francis only to the extent that he engages these questions which are, for many lay Catholics and Catholic theologians, central to the church's credibility in the world today, and to the ability of the church to proclaim the gospel effectively in our world today.

The ceramic sculpture, "Scapegoat" (2005), is by Brazilian artist Saint Clair Cemin and is at the website of the Paolo Curti gallery, Milan. I do not find information at this site prohibiting replication of the image online. If any reader knows of such a prohibition and can let me know about it, I'll be grateful. I'm using the image here with the assumption that it can be replicated by a blog, with a link to the original source.

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