Scripture’s Reversal: Recognizing the Scapegoat with René Girard and Flannery O’Connor
Ross Romero, S.J., Boston College
The recent election to the presidency of Barak Obama, the first African-American to hold the office, has led some to conclude that racial equality has finally been achieved in the United States. Yet, others would point to the existence of white privilege as evidence that it clearly has not. A critique of white privilege requires that white Americans recognize the advantages they have in a nation whose history has been shaped by the assumed superiority of whites.1 Part of this recognition requires a reading of American history that understands such events as slavery, the Jim- Crow era, and the Civil Rights movement as a history of injustice. One risk of such a reading that I have seen is that it tends to divide the agents of history into the categories of victimizer and victim. In this way the members of one race are blamed for victimizing members of another race. This can lead to ressentiment, a suppressed desire for revenge that carries over into perpetual judgment against the other. It becomes difficult for those who seek to understand this history, especially when they self-identify with the victimizing group, to listen to and to learn from it.2
In countering such a view, a helpful approach is to recognize the deeper roots of ressentiment. These are found in our tendency to make scapegoats out of others, a tendency to project blame for the ills that afflict us onto the other. In this essay, I develop this point through the work of René Girard whose work shows how a scriptural text can lead to the recognition of the scapegoat mechanism and begin a process of conversion. I conclude with a reflection on Flannery O’Connor’s short-story, “Revelation.” My own encounter with this story brought about such a process of recognition in me.
Important texts for understanding Girard’s view are Violence and the Sacred, The Scapegoat, and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. However, Girard effectively summarizes his theory in a
Peggy McIntosh, who is white, describes one aspect of the phenomenon as follows: “Whether I use checks, credit
McIntosh, “The Moral Quandary of 2002), 73. For Blum’s discussion of
Race,” quoted in Lawrence Blum’s the phenomenon see pages 72-77.
2 Paul Ricoeur calls such a capacity “ethical memory.” This essay is a small contribution to Ricoeur’s project of describing this capacity. His thoughts on these issues are found in two essays. Paul Ricoeur, “From Memory and Forgetting” and “From Imagination, Testimony, and Truth” in Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy, ed. Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley (Routledge: London and New York, 1999). The epilogue to Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2004) is also important in this connection.