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Faith and Values: Letting scapegoats loose in our lives

By Paul Graves For The Spokesman-Review

Have you seen any scapegoats wander around in your home lately? Or at the grocery store? Maybe on the downtown streets in your community? How about on the evening news, or the 24/7 cable news channels and the daily newspapers? They’re everywhere, friends.

Sometimes other people point them out to us so they can become our scapegoats, too. Sometimes we learn who and where the scapegoats are by simply growing up in our childhood homes or by listening courageously in the homes where we currently live.

In 1949, the ambitious play “South Pacific” opened on Broadway. Many of its songs became legendary and popular in subsequent years. But one song from that play, neither legendary nor popular, is arguably the most important song Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II ever wrote.

“South Pacific” was set during World War II when the “enemy” was Japan. So people of Asian descent were highly suspect, effectively scapegoats. One song pushed against this cultural scapegoating, “You’ve Got to Be Taught to Hate …” The full lyrics still cause some to cringe:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade

You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are 6 or 7 or 8

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught

While “scapegoating” has a current history of targeting people or things to project our fears and prejudices onto, it actually didn’t begin that way. Ancient Greek and Roman cultures used scapegoats for their own purposes. The first mention of scapegoats in Judeo-Christian traditions is in Leviticus 12, during a ritual on Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”).

Scapegoats were literal goats, driven into the wilderness, symbolically carrying the sins of the tribes. The ritual was meant to appease a God believed to want this kind of sacrifice from the people, and in return God would forgive their sins.

A New Testament case is made that Jesus was the ultimate scapegoat, sacrificing himself as a “ransom for many,” a crucified man who “died for our sins.” But Jesus turned this sacrificial assumption on its head, as he did with most all religious rituals.

He wasn’t chosen as the scapegoat; instead he volunteered for the job, and even forgave his executioners from the cross. He wasn’t driven into the wilderness to die. He continues to live, particularly in the lives of his followers who honestly try to refrain from scapegoating others.

It’s so easy for us to point to “other people” who engage in targeting still others as less-than-worthy of whatever we think is worthy. But we forget that we are likely someone else’s “other people.” The circular scapegoating seems endless.

So it’s up to us – you and me – to stop the vicious scapegoating game when and where we can.

It may involve curbing our tongues, and thinking more graciously of others we don’t know or don’t “approve of.” It may take on some kind of social and/or political activism that holds both systems and people to account for “thinking stupid” and “acting stupid.” We all do that, don’t we?

I’m thinking of an operating principle of the Center for Action and Contemplation again. It’s a great reminder to reduce our tendency to scapegoat others and ourselves. “The best criticism of the bad is to practice the better.”

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at welhouse@nctv.com.

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