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Scripture’s Reversal: Recognizing the Scapegoat with René Girard and Flannery ... - page 5 / 8





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a path out of scapegoating. Yet, the precise function of some scriptural texts is that they perform a reversal of scapegoating. Kearney himself correctly observes that for Girard certain scriptural texts “serve nonetheless to undo the sacrificial mechanism by demonstrating the innocence of the scapegoat.”8 These texts expose the falsehood of the guilt of the scapegoat, siding with and vindicating the innocent. This is done more explicitly in the Christ story found in the Gospels.9 This, however, is only part of the reason for Girard’s preference for the scriptural text. He upholds it as exemplary because it brings forth an ethical judgment, the precise nature of which is a judgment about oneself.

Stories in scripture have shown a capacity to actually involve the reader in the plot such that the reader is brought to recognize her or his own participation in the workings of the scapegoat mechanism. Such recognition makes it possible for the scapegoater to have a change of heart. With this recognition, the reader is in a better position to listen to and to understand histories of injustice, such as are found in the history of racism in America. As I noted at the outset, an understanding of this history, in turn, can help to gain a critical perspective on phenomenon such as white privilege.

The foregoing insight about the precise function of scripture leads to a reexamination of Girard’s own description of what happens in the Joseph story. Girard claims that in that story, “we see the hero himself engineer a scapegoat mise en scene in order to test the possibility of a change of heart in his brothers” (1996, 17). Moreover, this very mise en scene in which we as readers are involved is engineered precisely to test the possibility of our change of heart. Thus, the ethical response to the story of Joseph is to wonder “Might I, out of envy, have thrown Joseph, were he my brother, into the pit and sold him into slavery, or at least stood by and let the others do so?”

Applying it to the issue of race, the text calls me to ask: “Do I regularly fail to acknowledge my white privilege and actively take advantage of it?” On the other hand, more positively, the text calls us to ask, “Could I have made the same choice as Judah in substituting myself for Benjamin so that the process of scapegoating might stop? Might I make a substitutionary act for another?” “Might I refuse to take advantage of white privilege when the situation presents itself?” “Do I actively seek to bring about awareness of white privilege among those who are not so aware?” The ethical judgment to be made in the case of the “Christ story” is, obviously, not to accuse the Jews, a scapegoating mechanism consistently propagated by those who misread the text, but rather to say, “Ah-ha…I did it too.” This is the reason that Girard claims that the scriptures are, “the ultimate antidote to the sacrificial mechanism of human culture” to use Kearney's own phrase. 10

By engineering our own examination of conscience, scripture empowers us to act counter to our tendency to scapegoat. What is distinctive about scripture is not that it simply sides with the scapegoats. Were this all that scripture did, there would be ample reason for completely supporting Kearney’s criticism of Girard.11 Instead, it is recognizing the possibility of oneself as the scapegoater, seeing oneself as the victimizer, the one who has misjudged the scapegoat and the one who is powerless in the face of the scapegoat mechanism. This scriptural text poses questions to us in the subjunctive tense—a tense that is non-threatening, non-accusatory, and non-scapegoating—in

8 Kearney’s view of Girard is found in “Myths and Scapegoats: The Case of René Girard” in Theory, Culture, and Society 12, (1995): 1-14 and in Strangers, Gods and Monsters (Routledge: London, 2003). Here, I draw principally on “Myths and Scapegoats,” 8.

9 Kearney, “Myths,” 9. Ibid. 10

11 A similar critique of Girard is given by Robert M. Price in Deconstructing Jesus (Prometheus Books: Amherst, N.Y., 2000). Price criticizes Girard for failing to see how the Gospels themselves carry forth the scapegoating mechanism and fails to reverse it. Yet, what Price seems to miss is that it is not the text alone that reverses the scapegoat mechanism; instead, the reader himself must appropriate it and learn from it.


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