2016: The Year of the Scapegoat

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Protestant Perspectives, Reflections

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.”  

This concept is fundamental to the work of Clergy for a New Drug Policy.  Indeed, the War on Drugs can best understood as a sustained act of scapegoating over the past 45 years.  In April of this year, journalist Dan Baum in Harper’s Magazine recalled the words of John Erhlichman, White House aide when Richard Nixon launched a War on Drugs in 1972:

“You want to know what this (drug prohibition) was all about?  The Nixon campaign … had two enemies:  the antiwar left and black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.  Did we know we were lying about the drugs?  Of course we did.”

Because scapegoating so dominates our national scene, it is the theme of this first newsletter of 2017. We seek first to understand what scapegoating really is and how it works.  In her superb piece, Kathryn Ray, Associate Pastor of North Shore Baptist Church, provides such insight with her precise on René Girard’s definitions.

How do we respond?   This is a personal, for some a religious, question. None of us is above it.  We are all inclined to demonize those whom we oppose. One response, “Time for a Reset,” is included here, written by a lifelong personal friend, Richard Ruffin, who has dedicated his life to changing the hearts of those living on the brink of violence, at home and abroad.  

I especially like Richard’s point about needing to listen to each other’s fears. If the opposite of love is not hate, but fear, surely this is the place to start.

Because scapegoating lies at the heart of the War on Drugs, we are also pleased to include the perspective of William Fried, published in a recent issue of “Theology and Peace.” William writes from the perspective of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a national group of police officers, law enforcement officials, and many others who have become convinced that the drug war does far more harm than good.

Finally, scapegoating leaves in its wake huge amounts of collateral damage — especially individuals in prison, mostly African Americans, with obscenely long sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Barak Obama has done more than any president to correct these wrongs through his clemency project over the past two years.  Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Foundation urges us in the days before January 20th to encourage this effort.

2016 was the year in which hatred against “otherness” was allowed to become visible and violent to a degree greater than most of us can remember.  In 2017 let us resolve to persist in hope, never judging lest we be judged, as we seek to transform the scapegoating so prevalent in our midst.