Religion, Fundamentalism, Gnosticism, Part XIII: The Scapegoat

The “perpetually incomplete and insecure,” find in fundamentalist doctrine protection from a complex and ambiguous world. They will sacrifice reality for this security, and will just as readily sacrifice the individual to preserve their doctrine’s institutional embodiment. As Tate remarked, “abstraction is the death of religion no less than the death of anything else.”

Recently, Kait Gannon has given us a horrifying example. In her podcast The Ugly Truth About the Girl Next Door, she recounts her ritualized sexual exploitation by family and church, at home from about age four, and away throughout her time at Lynchburg’s Liberty University. She was raised to believe that the abuse was the product and desert of her own evil. Her attempts to escape resulted in enrollment in “biblical counseling,” in which she was confronted with her “sin,” and forced to publicly confess resentment or falsehood.

Consider the parallels with the Inquisition, which involved its own cruelly elaborate ritual. The auto-da-fe, the sentencing of “witches,” was an hours-long production involving Mass, prayer, and the procession of the accused, all attended by the local notables, religious and secular. The victims had been encouraged, by a sometimes lengthy torture, to confess their practice of the black arts. If this confession was adequately recited at the conclusion of the proceedings, the officiating priests would embrace the convicted, giving thanks to God for the cure of lost souls. By this performance, the witch could earn the mercy of death by strangulation before being burned.

This drama is similarly reenacted wherever the cohesion of the group or institution is given priority over the individual. We see a workaday version in many homes, when tired parents, rather than search out the origins of—and perhaps their own contribution to—family tensions, identify for punishment problem behaviors or a problem child. In this context too we may find forced confessions, and professions of love warranting abuse.

This is scapegoating, and religion’s efforts to find substitute sacrifices (animals, the crucifixion), suggest that it is a common impulse, but why does it occasionally take such vicious and deliberate form?

The first thing to note is that scapegoating is a mighty prop to institutions, enhancing the prestige and authority of the group. Thomas Szasz, in The Manufacture of Madness, quotes historian H.C. Lea concerning the pageantry of witch trials:

“We can readily picture to ourselves the effect produced on the popular mind by these awful celebrations, when, at the bidding of the Inquisition, all that was great and powerful in the land was called together humbly to take the oath of obedience and witness its exercise of the highest expression of human authority, regulating the destinies of fellow-creatures here and here-after…The faith which could thus vindicate itself might certainly inspire the respect of fear if not the attraction of love.”

To put this slightly differently, the identification of a common enemy has enormous group utility; hatred is a superlative unifier. In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer quotes a statement from 1932 by a Japanese admirer of Hitler: “It [National Socialism] is magnificent. I wish we could have something like it in Japan, only we can’t, because we haven’t got any Jews.”

The point of hatred and violence is to serve as a kind of pressure relief valve. The fanatic hates himself, a truth he can avoid only by identifying with a holy project, and by projecting his perceived evil onto an external object. Furthermore, even in the absence of fanaticism, any group will experience disorder and tension, to apportion responsibility for which is a long task of care and discernment. Justice is difficult; it is far easier and less disruptive to assign, more or less arbitrarily, blame to one individual or class.

We can elaborate this last point by reference to another of Szasz’s books, The Myth of Mental Illness. He conceived society as a series of overlapping games. The family, church, university, career, politics—each is a game, with its own rules and roles. Not everyone will tolerate their assigned roles, and the signs of what is now called mental illness are indications of such intolerance. For Szasz, mental illness is a myth, in two senses: firstly, it’s not what you think it is, and secondly, it is an organizing narrative that recapitulates the Inquisition in secular form (i.e. it pathologizes rule- and role-breaking).

For example, let’s return to the “problem child” above. Children are entirely dependent on caregivers, and require attention and attunement for their development. If these are not forthcoming, they will do what it takes to get them. Their efforts can take many forms—acting out and manipulation, people-pleasing, rule-following and other performance, passivity, etc.—and to the extent that they work (i.e. are rewarded with attention, positive or negative), they become habitual. In later years, and in other contexts, these learned behaviors can be highly maladaptive (and may be described as one of the “personality disorders” of the DSM). 

Faced with these behaviors, parents (and institutions) have three choices. They may accept them, in which case these habits will form the basis of the group’s roles, or they might pathologize them, and resort to medication, the psychiatrist, or some other form of exclusion and punishment. The third option is the most difficult and rare: they may consider their own contribution to the situation, and re-engineer the game so that everyone can play without recourse to such tricks.

The true believers of a group will typically resist this third option. These, who identify most completely with group and game, who, in other words, can perform the most perfect self-denial, will have the least self-regard, and therefore the least respect for, and curiosity about, the individual as such. We imagine others much as we value ourselves; the abject, expecting abjection in others, are the most capable of cruelty, and the least capable of considering the individual’s claims against the institution. It is worth quoting Hoffer at length on this point: 

“Even when men league themselves mightily together to promote tolerance and peace on earth, they are likely to be violently intolerant toward those not of a like mind. The estrangement from the self, without which there can be neither selflessness nor a full assimilation of the individual into a compact whole, produces…a proclivity for passionate attitudes, including passionate hatred…The act of self-denial seems to confer on us the right to be harsh and merciless toward others. The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is that the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit this earth and the kingdom of heaven, too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen shall perish.”

Fundamentalism provided fresh impetus for scapegoating within evangelical circles. Let’s return to Cornelius Van Til, who made what I regard as its definitive statement:

“The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything…It is only if you reject the Bible as the word of God that you can separate the so-called religious and moral instruction of the Bible from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.”

This perspective leaves little room for reality or complexity, much less for the individual, and is redolent of the witch hunt. Moreover, the Bible is so complex, metaphorical, and ambiguous—and its application therefore a matter of judgment—that it should be clear that Van Til is not asserting here the authority of the text, but of his preferred reading of it. Karl Barth attests both points in a 1961 letter describing his experience of Van Til: 

“But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness.”

Barth recounts a merely intellectual inquisition, but Van Til’s claim has been put to more material uses. Let’s consider the translation of Van Til’s orthodoxy into the practice of therapy. Here is part of the current “Membership Covenant” of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors: 

“Because counseling concerns matters of life and faith before God, Scripture is an inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient rule for the presuppositions, principles, and practices of counseling…We deny that the findings of secular psychology make any essential contribution to biblical counseling…Because unbelievers suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness the efforts of secular psychology at interpreting [clinical] observations lead to misunderstanding. Because their observations are distorted by a secular apprehension of life their efforts at counseling ministry will be in competition with biblical counseling. They cannot be integrated with the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

Next, to understand the therapeutic methodology of ACBC, we turn to the writing of its founder, Jay Adams, specifically to his Competent to Counsel, which remains the essential text of this organization:

“[The Epistle of] James raised for me the question of the pastor’s duty to confront the so-called mentally ill. James seemed to say that patients should at least be asked to consider whether some of their difficulties might stem from sin…Believing the Scriptures to be true, I had to say that the mental health viewpoint was plainly wrong in removing responsibility from the sinner by locating the source of his alcoholic or sexual problem in constitutional or social factors over which he has no control…could the books be wrong in similarly misclassifying other problems like depression or neurosis or even psychosis, as sickness?”

Adams is asserting here that mental illness is a moral issue rather than a  “constitutional,” that is, a matter of disease—a worthy question, and one that Thomas Szasz also poses—but he goes further, and suggests that “social factors” should not remove “responsibility from the sinner,” in other words, that a moral question should be isolated from its context. This is nonsense. If I punch a man in the face, should the jury know that he had just pushed my wife down a flight of stairs? Every action has to be situated in its proper context even to be intelligible, much less evaluated.  

I do not believe this an oversight on Adams’ part, but rather the product of his theology. As we’ve seen, fundamentalism is intolerant of complexity and ambiguity; just as it abstracts the preferred doctrine from the complexity of the Bible, so it abstracts moral choice from the complexity of context. This is, incidentally, a repudiation of the ethics of Christianity.

In any event, this “duty” of the pastor to “confront the so-called mentally ill” with their “sin” amounts to the institutionalization of scapegoating. By deliberately narrowing the scope of moral inquiry, there could be no other result. This simple, but vile, prescription is all that was necessary for Kait Gannon’s counselors to characterize her attempt to escape sexual exploitation as sin. Fundamentalism provides an ethical framework to excuse abuse; it’s up to the imagination and predilections of the cult authorities to determine the nature of the abuse.

To the true believer the sacrifice of one player for the sake of the game is a matter of course. He won’t consider the victim any more than the institutional cost: after all, the scapegoat, loaded with the community’s guilt, was driven into the wilderness, abode of the prophets, and the occasional scapegoat-as-prophet returns with a unique insight necessary to society (the Greeks represented much the same idea by the blindness of Homer and the lameness of Hephaestus). Moreover, within Christianity, which might be described the religion of the scapegoat, the practice is particularly perverse. Consider the scapegoat hymn that is the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, or Christ’s identification with the scapegoat figure of Psalm 118:

“Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.”

Also in this series:

Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Part IX; Part X; Part XI; Part XII

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