Scott Benhase: A national narcissism

Latino immigrants are only our latest scapegoats.

It’s always easier to blame others than to accept responsibility ourselves. That seems to be true across cultures. Nearly 20 years ago I first read Rene Girard’s great book, “The Scapegoat,” where he challenged his readers with just that truth. Girard’s insights across culture and time tell us that we, individually and collectively, often need someone, or even an entire people, to blame when we experience distress and uncertainty. We seem to need to find a cause or agency outside ourselves that we can blame and thus deflect any responsibility from ourselves for distress and uncertainty.

African Americans have served this scapegoat role throughout U.S. country’s history.

During the Gilded Age’s economic volatility it was Irish and Italian immigrants who were to blame. Jews were the scapegoats the Nazis latched upon during the economic depression of 1930s Germany. The Armenians served this role for the Turks in the early part of the 20th Century. This list, as you know, could go on and on.

My hunch is that scapegoating often has some small element of truth in it, or at least one event that has occurred that then can be universalized to create a marketable scapegoat. For example, a scapegoat was made of people on “welfare” in this country when a few so-called “welfare mothers” were found to be abusing the system. This scapegoating ignored the reality that the vast majority of people who received welfare were dirt poor and remained so even on welfare. But such scapegoating served the purpose of blaming government overspending on welfare cheats.

And that brings us to the current scapegoating of Latinos crossing the border into the United States. You can read a Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church on this subject here.

It should not surprise us that during the great economic volatility and uncertainty in which we now live that Latino immigration should be such an issue. I am not interested in entering a debate on this subject here (the Pastoral Letter referenced above, which I signed, does that well). What does interest me, however, is our human behavior and our penchant for scapegoating. You’ll recall that Jesus himself was seen as a scapegoat by the High Priest Caiaphas (John 11:50). In the season of Lent, and particularly on Ash Wednesday, we are invited to look truthfully at ourselves. But this, of course, should not be something limited to one day or time of year. With the old spiritual we can say each day: “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer. Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.”

So, who are we blaming these days for our problems, challenges, and issues? Our national narcissism might incline us to scapegoat others. But let’s avoid that inclination. We are truthful people. In Jesus, we can always handle the truth.

Scott Benhase is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia.