In November of 2015, the Washington Post reported that in the previous year law enforcement had taken more property from people – including cash, automobiles, and even homes – than burglars had stolen. Burglary losses amounted to $3.5 billion, while, shockingly, the net asset of police seizures amounted to $4.5 billion. (via The Institute for Justice) More disturbingly, this number reflected only federal statistics, and not seizures by state police and local law enforcement, data that in most cases is extremely difficult to obtain. Law enforcement utilizes a practice known as civil asset forfeiture to permanently confiscate property they perceive to be involved in criminal activity. This is done without requiring officers to prove the person or the property is guilty and/or connected to criminal activity. The process to reclaim one’s property in the event of seizure is legally complex, expensive, and time-sensitive, making the extreme majority of assets logistically impossible for most people to reclaim. Furthermore, law enforcement is inherently incentivized to persist the practice as all funds obtained through asset forfeiture are re-directed to the operating budgets of their respective departments.
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:
Rev. Alan Jones, Pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, Sacramento and President of the California Council of Churches, joined by five clergy colleagues (video below) calls for approval of California’s Proposition 64 to tax and regulate marijuana. Prop 64 passed with a 56% “Yes” vote. Transcript of Rev. Dr. Alan Jones statement: I believe that the basis of any Christian moral decision is being honest, so you start from the position of telling the truth about what’s going on. What’s going on is that people across California are using marijuana. I am told that on any street you can purchase marijuana. It’s illegal, but you can purchase it. There’s no law enforcement for it. This is a dishonest position. Proposition 64 calls us into an honest engagement with marijuana. You know, we Methodists used to be famous for the fact that we were required not to consume alcohol. Booze was a real problem and we had to say “no.” We’ve evolved over the years, and the United Methodist Social Principles now say concerning alcohol that” judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint with Scripture as our guide” is the way to proceed. I would advise everybody as a person of faith looking at Prop 64 to consider “judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint with Scripture as our guide.” And look primarily at the teaching of Jesus. Jesus when asked what the bottom line is, said,” Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” And if you do that you, have to find your way into Prop 64. So let’s vote to support Prop 64.
A homeless shelter may be a refuge for those with no place to turn, but the entrance at its gate comes with a steep admission price: “Turn in your LINK card.” “Make your bed.” “Attend religious services daily.” “Stay sober.” “Be in by curfew.” At the Harm Reduction in the House 2016 conference which I attended last Friday, two young people who had experienced homelessness could quickly rattle off lists of requirements. These requirements mean that the choice to seek out a shelter or stay under the Wilson Street viaduct requires a careful cost and benefit analysis. If staying out late with friends or smoking marijuana gives you the comfort you need in the face of loss and trauma, the trade-off for four walls and a roof may not be worth it.