The likely confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions to be U.S. attorney general is deeply troubling. He believes people who possess marijuana should be arrested. He has recently opposed reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and appears to support privatized prisons. Surely clemency is beyond the pale. But the real difficulty goes far deeper than his views about particular policies. He threatens to take us back to the days before we became aware of our national collective responsibility for mass incarceration. It is only seven years – how much longer it seems – since Michelle Alexander told us in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness that the United States puts more people in prison per capita than any nation on earth and relegates African American and Hispanic communities to third-world status. Her landmark book exposed the War on Drugs, exploding in the 1980’s, as the primary cause.
Regardless of our politics, surely we can agree that 2016 was a brutal year. What made it so ugly were the steady expressions of hatred against every imaginable group – African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, Middle-Eastern refugees, Asians, LGBTQs – and a litany of others. It is not an exaggeration to brand 2016 as “The Year of the Scapegoat.” We use here theologian René Girard’s definition of scapegoating: “the strange process through which two or more people are reconciled at the expense of a third party or who appears responsible for whatever ails, disturbs, or frightens the scapegoats.”
I have a confession: I have harbored an instinctive aversion to René Girard since the first time I read his seminal work Violence and the Sacred. I resist sweeping theories that attempt to account for the entire nature and destiny of humankind. It seems like an arrogant enterprise. So when right-wing, millennial commentator Tomi Lahren tells Daily Show host Trevor Noah that Black Lives Matter is the new KKK, I took it like a kick to the stomach. The first reason is because it seems unconscionable to compare a protest group to a network of individuals that systematically terrorized, raped, tortured, and murdered African Americans for over a century. The second reason is because it forced me to concede, and not for the first time, that Girard got a few things right. Viewed through his theory of scapegoating, Lahren’s theory, while still outrageous, also makes complete sense. Furthermore, Girard’s theory of Christ offers insight into how I, outraged as I am, might respond both to Lahren and the reactionary culture that birthed her. Two key concepts are essential to Girard’s thought: mimesis and scapegoating. Even if philosophy is not your cup of tea, once you grasp these two concepts, you are well on your way to having a functioning Girardian lens. Let’s begin with mimesis:
Two influential faith leaders from the south and west sides joined forces last Wednesday to build a base of support in Chicago for harm reduction rather than arrests and jail as the response to drug abuse and addiction. Chief Apostle William McCoy and Bishop Claude Porter, with Congressman Danny Davis, hosted a symposium on “Challenges and Options” for a new drug policy featuring the voices of diverse individuals from law enforcement, government, healthcare, and policy advocacy. Over 50 community residents were present.