Photo: DepositPhotos.com – uroszunic
This week, many in the Jewish community observed Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Although it consists of solemn fasting and prayers of repentance, the day ends in celebration with the blowing of the shofar and the opportunity to begin anew.
Before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the entire community would come together to fast, express remorse, and to deal with the recent past. They would sacrifice one goat and the sins of the people were symbolically put on a scapegoat that would be sent away into the wilderness.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman a senior editor at Chabad.org discusses the meaning of the ritual of the scapegoat. Although the entire community is involved in the rituals, Freeman says, the ritual is really about each one of us. The sins that reach the goat are our individual sins, and each one of us has to take full responsibility for it.
As Rabbi Freeman explains,
“That sounds pretty simple, but I have to bring it up because most people seem to find it real hard. We tend to think the scapegoat is our mother, father, fourth-grade school teacher, wife, husband, job, employer, rush-hour traffic, pharmaceuticals, condition, or some crazy rabbi who gives nutty advice.”
“That doesn’t work. You can’t send the goat away as long as you continue denying that it’s your goat. Only once you say, “Yes, that’s me,” then you can say, “No, that wasn’t me. Not the real me. That was beneath me.”
“And I’m never going to see that goat again.”
Now what lessons can politicians in 2015 learn from the ancient scapegoat ritual?
Here’s the deal. Politicians are experts at placing blame. They find people other than themselves and their anticipated voters to “hold responsible” for things that have gone wrong in the world. They blame immigrants, illegal immigrants, Christians, Muslims, atheists, straight people, homosexuals, liberals, conservatives, foreign enemies, domestic enemies, men, women, the 1%, the 99%, welfare recipients, communists, racists, capitalists, socialists, other countries, our country . . . you name it. If you stick around the political debates long enough, I guarantee that somebody, somewhere, will say that you, or someone just like you but not you specifically, is to blame.
But it’s not your fault, is it? Political careers are made by identifying, or in some cases creating, amorphous bogeymen who have nothing in mind but the destruction of “The Constitution” and the “American way of life.” The call to get rid of the bogeyman and “all will be well” is a pernicious promise.
Sometimes the newer a politician is, the less diplomatic they are about making blanket statements that tag others as scapegoats.
On Sunday morning, presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson, who despite having achieved the gold standard of human intelligence as a brain surgeon (in the sense that there are things that brain surgeons and rocket scientists presumably know and that sliced bread is the apex of human ingenuity) made a glaring gaffe when he tossed Article VI of the U.S. Constitution aside when he declared that “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”
Carson was asked about this in the context of a New Hampshire Town Hall meeting where Donald Trump was insufficiently appalled at an outspoken rube who declared, “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims,” and ended by asking, “When can we get rid of ’em?”
Trump’s first speech, declaring that a number of undocumented immigrants are “rapists” and “murderers” was classic blame making. Not only was it enough to talk about dilution of financial resources and jobs, but Trump decided to take it a step further and accuse them of the worst crimes. Trump’s message is intended to inspire the idea that we should line up behind him against illegal immigration, because once they are gone, the streets will again be paved with gold.
And it is not without some serious irony that Mike Huckabee’s statements that the law of God needs to be sovereign over the laws of the nation comes across as a Christian take on Sharia law. Speaking on a Christian television show, “Life Today” in January, Huckabee said, “We cannot survive as a republic if we do not become, once again, a God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from man, they come from God.”
Considering that it’s rare to find two theologians who believe exactly the same thing about the law of God, Huckabee’s arrangement which would place the “Law of God” above the Constitution. Somebody would need to be in a position to decide which version of God’s law would be followed and who would also be punished if they followed it incorrectly. However helpful he thinks this is, and Huckabee, a preacher himself, apparently believes that this a top-down imposition of the law of God would result in the eternal salvation of most Americans, it would require the equivalent of a caliphate.
Even Bernie Sanders, who has convinced a significant number that electing him will be like electing Santa Claus hasn’t escaped the blame game completely, blaming everything from Wall Street to billionaires for the ills of society.
If one Googles enough, it would be possible to find things that each candidate has said placing the blame for whatever ails the world solely on someone else. And I suppose most people have said the same kinds of things in their private conversations.
But if every sin is sin, there’s a hierarchy with those sins which are the furthest removed from most Christians being considered the worst. In the Christian world, while the sins of “others” are publicly decried, it’s no accident that much more ink has been spilled on the subject of same-sex marriage than on sexual exploitation, that the sin of gluttony isn’t considered much more than the punch-line, and bearing false witness through gossip is sanctified as fellowship. When was the last time you heard your favorite televangelist who has been railing on and on about gay marriage talk about the evils of clergy sexual abuse?
Making a policy of dividing society based on arbitrary lines, obscuring one’s own faults, blaming others, and seeking to eliminate the voices of those with whom one disagrees is the exact opposite of what America needs to move forward. This does not mean that we should not identify problems and work to resolve them – that is essential – but it is that we should recognize in all humility that these are our goats, that we are each other and that we must do all in our power to seek the mutual blessings of peace between us. When we are divided on issues of faith, we have to let God decide the outcome in God’s time. Deciding how one should relate to God should never be a function of the state.
As a bonus, politicians might find that approaching these issues with humility, with the impulse of healing rather than finding the right people to blame, will also gain more points in the polls.