Israel, the Internet, and Purging the Scapegoat

In his new book A Farewell to Mars, my pastor-at-large Brian Zahnd spends some time on the powerful theme of scapegoating. 

This is not my full review of the book (that’s coming soon), but it is a quick riff. Because this theme struck a particular chord, considering the way people so often engage in this destructive social practice. I think we’ve been seeing an extreme example of scapegoating in the Israel-Gaza conflict. And I think we see it happen in smaller ways all the time – perhaps especially on the Internet.

Zahnd describes scapegoating this way in Chapter 3 of his book:

When a group of people becomes an angry, fear-driven crowd, the groupthink phenomenon of mob mentality quickly overtakes rational thought and individual responsibility. The mob takes on a spirit of its own and the satanic is generated…

The crowd has the demonic instinct to select a scapegoat— a sacrificial victim to bear the sinful anger of the crowd. As soon as the scapegoat is identified , the crowd proceeds to blame, shame, accuse, vilify, and possibly murder the scapegoat…

This “escape valve” of sacrificing a scapegoat is highly effective in producing a sense of well-being and belonging within the crowd. Human beings have been utilizing the “scapegoat mechanism,” as René Girard calls it, since the dawn of human civilization. It’s the blood-drenched altar of civilization. It’s the Cain model for preserving the polis. It’s collective murder as the alchemy for peace and unity.

Recently, my wife and I watched a movie from a couple years ago called The Purge (the sequel having recently come out in theaters). The story, like so many these days, is set in a dystopian not-too-distant future when American society has survived chaotic wars to achieve untold peace and a near cessation of violent crime. Similar to The Hunger Games, there is a dark tradition that acts as a catalyst for this peace. It’s called The Purge, one night every year when any and all crime, including murder, is allowed and will go unpunished by law enforcement.

The Purge is marketed as an opportunity for those with pent up anger or violence to purge those feelings by engaging in a murderous kind of catharsis. It is hailed as the primary reason there is such peace and tranquility the rest of the year, and it is treated with reverence as a kind of sacred ritual. And as we watch, we learn that it is ritualized scapegoating, par excellence. 

Mobs roam the streets to murder the societally underprivileged toward whom they feel anger for abusing the welfare system (the poor are especially vulnerable during The Purge). Likewise, privileged white neighbors plot to exact vengeance on the uppity overachievers in the gated community who flaunt their upper class success. In all directions, there is the belief that an enemy exists that deserves this purging of anger to be unleashed on them. And the result is “collective murder as the alchemy for peace and unity.”

Israel’s Scapegoat

Whether one accepts Rene Girard’s theory of atonement or not, it is hard to deny that the gospel of Jesus, his teaching alongside his atoning death and subversive resurrection, were a powerful witness against the scapegoating tendencies of his first century audience.

And yet we have, currently, a startling example of scapegoating happening in current-day Israel. Hamas is a brutal, manipulative regime in the Gaza Strip, leading a constant violent campaign against Israel. And yet, the recent siege of Gaza by the Israeli military (now in temporary ceasefire) has been disproportionately deadly, killing hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians. Whenever the murderous nature of their response is brought up, the Israeli government quickly kneejerks to the “terrorist” nature of Hamas and Israel’s right to defend themselves. There have been reports of some Israelis celebrating the rockets landing just miles away on homes, schools, and hospitals in Gaza.

The disproportionate, murderous response to Hamas is a function of exaggerating the enemy in order to justify the grand venting of anger through the “escape valve.” The crowd approves. Catharsis is achieved. Sinful anger is purged (for a moment). Dissenting voices in Israel advocating for peace are overwhelmingly dismissed. Killing will bring about peace and unity (for a moment).

On the Internet

The intimate anonymity of the Internet often leads to destructive, pathological social behaviors – just read some YouTube comments. And scapegoating is a common practice. Exaggerating the evil of an online enemy is followed by the crowd’s angry taunts and finally the attempt to destroy the target’s credibility or at least wage the psychological warfare of harassment. In the process, the mob’s sinful rage is vented and a sense of peace and unity befalls them.

Parody accounts have become increasingly common on Twitter, and these are especially effective for targeted scapegoating. Some parody accounts are relatively harmless and humorous, but some are vicious and vitriolic. Under a veneer of sarcasm and snark, they aim to prop up the scapegoat by twisting and exaggerating their supposed evils, so that the crowd might assemble, attack, and destroy them.

Recently, a parody account that targets Christian author Rachel Held Evans began blogging sans the snark – and revealed the darkness beneath the parody. Their post was a serious defense of the popular conservative catch-phrase that Christians are all doing “better than we deserve” because we all, as sinners, deserve hell. The blogger quickly brought this into the context of Rachel’s rebuttal concerning matters of violence and abuse, especially toward women. I’ve rebutted this as well – abuse is not “better than we deserve.” Abuse is horrific, undeserved, a crime perpetrated against an innocent victim. God sees it this way too, weeping with the victim and standing in their defense.

But this parody-tweeter-turned-serious-blogger actually went so far as to post a picture of a woman’s bruised face, with these words displayed over the image: “You deserve so much more.” Here, the parody account that has attempted to demonize and scapegoat a Christian author, and lead a crowd against her, has revealed their own true darkness. Misogyny and violence wrapped in an ultra-Reformed theology of hell.

Perhaps this can serve as a lesson for all of us who are tempted to join in the scapegoating of someone else, whether in real life or on the Internet, on whatever side of the theological and political aisle. Perhaps we’ve joined in the past in smaller or larger ways. Perhaps we can learn something from those experiences too.

Scapegoating relies on exaggeration. It is not concerned with the truth. It is the crowd’s way of venting rage as a means of staying united. In Kierkegaard’s words (via Zahnd), “The crowd is indeed untruth. Christ was crucified because he would have nothing to do with the crowd.”

Whether in Israel or on the Internet, maybe it’s time to stop purging our crowd’s sinful anger and purge the scapegoat system itself [Tweet This].

Maybe it’s time to participate in a better way, the way of Jesus, the way of the gospel of peace, the way of the atoning cross and subversive resurrection.

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • Hannah

    “The crowd is indeed untruth. Christ was crucified because he would have nothing to do with the crowd.”

    YES. This is going on my bathroom mirror for a while. :)

  • Jordan Wk

    Fantastic article, Zach. As always. Love the blog and will be sharing this article.

  • Wanda Childs

    Powerful words & concept. Thank you! Sharing.

  • zhoag

    thanks Wanda :).

  • zhoag

    thanks Jordan, appreciate that.

  • zhoag

    Nice! And thanks :).

  • Rachel Held Evans

    Thanks so much for this Zach. The post arguing that abused women are just getting what they deserve really upset me. (And scared me a little, to be honest. As a woman, it’s unnerving to see a photo of a woman’s bruised face – with the message “you deserve even worse” – on a site exclusively devoted to hating you.)

    I appreciate this post because it served as both a welcomed support AND a reminder of how easily I too can slip into the scapegoating mentality. The violence I observe in the world lurks in my own heart.

    Grateful for you!

  • zhoag

    With you Rachel – it’s a scary post and a harmful theology. And yes, I think we can all press toward a more peace-gospel-centered (hee hee) kind of engagement online :).

  • Rachel Held Evans

    Oh, and sorry I misspelled your name the first time. Ha!

  • zhoag

    haha no worries :).

  • Brad

    And in the context of that image and label: “It makes me cringe to look at the picture above with the words, “You. Deserve So. Much. More.” But I put it there as a crass reminder of the reality that the suffering of this world is so much lighter than the eternal suffering of those who stand in the judgment of God. I put it there as a reminder that the suffering of the Christian is a reminder of how great a hope we have in an eternity free from suffering.”

    It’s almost as if you’re demonizing the author behind the parody account here by only including what you did and not other quotes where his/her hatred of and disgust with abuse are mentioned. Did you read the whole post? Did you see the final paragraph where husbands are called to serve and love their wives? Not sure that’s exactly “revealing the darkness” in the author’s heart.

    The author also makes it clear that telling women (and ANYONE in the midst of tragedy) they deserve so much more “isn’t tactful or gracious or even what anyone should ever actually say to someone in the midst of suffering and evil, but it’s the truth.”

    However, perhaps the last phrase – that it’s the truth – is where you and I differ. When I know what I am saved FROM, that leads me to worship who I have been saved by and to. That doesn’t make God a monster, that makes his Gospel glorious.

    Honestly curious question(s) for you (as well as RHE, if she sees this): how do we talk about God’s wrath then? Do we avoid this topic and focus solely on His love? Thanks in advance.

  • zhoag

    Brad, are you the author of the post and the one behind the parody account? Just so I’m clear.

  • Brad

    Haha, what? No. I just see articles/posts taken out of context all the time, and this is no exception. Additionally, Rachel is good at making emotional appeals by twisting words, and I don’t think that’s fair. I’m willing to bet that the author of the parody account wouldn’t bother defending himself/herself because he/she feels no need to.

  • Brad

    Although with that said, even if you were to rightly take the whole post in its context, I believe you’d still have several disagreements. Regardless, it seems to me as if you’re demonizing the author for his theology on God’s wrath, which is exactly what you call us not to do.

  • Rachel Held Evans

    Brad, here’s a direct quote from the post, which is paired with a very disturbing image of a woman with a bruised face:

    “Most liberals, and most people, would look at the victim of abuse and say, ‘You deserve so more than that.’ But the underlying reality of all suffering is that there is no such thing as an undeserved sufferer. None of us, regardless of whether we’ve been victimized, can say that we deserve better than what we have. Instead, the opposite is true. You don’t deserve more than that. You deserve more of that. You deserve so much more. more suffering. more pain. more tragedy. more abuse. more oppression. more loneliness. more discontent. more depression. more judgment. more fear. more emptiness.”

    It’s not an “emotional” response to point out how deeply problematic (and potentially destructive) a message like that can be, especially to a woman – or a child or anyone – experiencing abuse.

    And when I go to a site that is devoted to hating and mocking me, and I see a picture of a woman’s bruised face and the message ” you deserve worse,” it’s unnerving to say the least.

  • zhoag

    Ok, your defense just seems strange, and since these parody accounts hide behind anonymity in order to effectively scapegoat their target, I thought I should at least ask. That said, Rachel is right. Even if the author is simply trying to “make a point” about the apparent violence and abuse entailed in God’s judgment, there is much darkness in supporting and believing that alone. I suspect there is more of a personal pathology at work as well (highlighted by the quote Rachel cited) and, if nothing else, a disturbing obsession with and aggression toward the author’s target. The post, and the image, are misogynistic and violent, per definition.

  • Brad

    But again, did you read what the author wrote regarding that picture and label? See my original post.

    This comes down to your theology on God’s wrath. If you have time, can you answer the questions I asked at the end of my first post? I agree that the message would be deeply problematic and destructive…but only apart from the good news of the Gospel that we can be freely saved from God’s wrath.

  • Rachel Held Evans

    “How do we talk about God’s wrath?”

    Not with pictures of battered women and the caption, “You deserve this.”

  • Brad

    Yes, but the author – and those who believe similarly that we all deserve much, much worse – don’t support and believe that alone. I think the “but” is crucial, as in: yes, we deserve God’s wrath, BUT while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

    Also, a “disturbing obsession with and aggression toward the author’s target”? Where is the aggression? The author makes it clear that he/she doesn’t hate her but rather her “brand” of liberal theology that he/she feels is harmful.

  • Brad

    Okay, that’s how you “wouldn’t” talk about God’s wrath. But how DO you talk about God’s wrath, if at all?

    Also, I’m still not convinced you read the whole article. The author makes it clear he/she would never suggest telling a victim of abuse that she deserves it.

  • zhoag

    Brad, is that really what you believe God’s wrath looks like? Battering a woman? And do you really believe that’s the image that people should be shown in connection to God’s judgment? And do you think this sentiment is somehow not harmful? If you believe it’s ok for God to beat up women but just not for you, but you still fully support God doing it, then that’s a bit of disturbing theological cognitive dissonance (and a pathology all its own) that I’m not at all interested in entertaining.

    Probably best to leave it at that.

  • zhoag

    There are plenty of ways to talk about God’s wrath that don’t entail believing that victims of horrific abuse deserve worse and will get worse from God himself. Study outside of your tradition. But let’s leave it at that please.

  • Brad

    Where did I say that’s what God’s wrath looks like? And where did the author state that? That’s where Rachel twisted the author’s words. The point is, while horrible, we deserve more than any physical suffering we will ever suffer on this earth. And of course, it’s easy for me to say that as one who hasn’t been a victim of abuse, for example…but nonetheless, I believe that Scripture makes it clear that apart from Christ, I/we deserve and will receive God’s wrath.

    To be honest, the image threw me at first and I thought it went too far, and maybe it did. But the author explained his/her reasoning behind it. Not once did he/she call abuse “God’s wrath” though.

    “If you believe it’s ok for God to beat up women…”

    Again, where did I even hint at that? You seem to be putting words in my mouth.

  • Brad

    Zach, you still aren’t answering my question. For all I know, you don’t even believe in God’s wrath or want to avoid that topic, because I haven’t heard otherwise. Study outside of my tradition? Are you claiming to know my background? Impressive. :)

    No matter the level of suffering experienced on this earth, those that reject Christ will experience much worse. That’s why the Good News is good news – we have the free offer of grace found in Jesus.

  • Elexa Dawson

    The “good news” is that you can say a magic prayer to get a ticket out of the eternal hell and torment that god created for you from the foundations of the earth?

  • Brad

    Who said anything about a magic prayer? The Bible speaks of being saved by grace through faith. If what you’re getting at is a denial of the existence of hell, well, you’ll have to ignore a lot of Scripture to deny that. And if you think salvation is about just “getting out of hell”, you’ve missed the point.

  • Emily Heitzman

    No matter what one believes or does not believe about God’s “wrath,” this author’s message is extremely harmful, and there is no room for defending it. Thank you Rachel and Zach for calling it out and exposing it for what it is.

  • Elexa Dawson

    You’re supporting a theology that says that as horrible as this broken world can be, there’s a much worse place you deserve to go. The creator of you, the wretched sinner and this place is god. The author of the whole story line is god. He made it this way.

  • Emily Heitzman

    “Scapegoating relies on exaggeration. It is not concerned with the truth. It is the crowd’s way of venting rage as a means of staying united…Whether in Israel or on the Internet, maybe it’s time to stop purging our crowd’s sinful anger and purge the scapegoat system itself.”

    Yes! Thank you posting this, Zach, and naming this kind of scapegoating that is happening. There are so many people who are angry and horrified about the situation in Gaza right now (and how much the US is contributing to it), but who fear speaking out about it because those who have had any bit of sympathy for Gaza or anger about Israel’s actions are also being scapegoated.

    We must continue to speak out and do some truth telling in order to “purge the scapegoat system.” Thank you for doing so.

  • Brad

    Actually, you stated it quite well, except I wouldn’t say I “support” that theology; rather, I believe it according to Scripture. This world is indeed horribly broken as a result of our sin, and we all justly deserve damnation from God as punishment for our sin. But thanks be to God, in His love and mercy, for not leaving us in our sin but for sending His Son, Jesus, as our substitute to die on our behalf so that we can live eternally with Him. And that eternal life begins at the moment we believe – not so much a “ticket to heaven” theology proclaimed by many, but rather a lifelong process of growth in holiness and grace.

    So, I encourage you to read Romans, if you haven’t already. Or perhaps you don’t believe that the Word is inerrant or don’t believe what Scripture says at all, in which case, we will differ on many levels.

  • Brad

    I still would like to hear your belief, or lack thereof, regarding God’s wrath, Rachel, if you have the time.

  • zhoag

    thanks Emily – agree :).

  • @TheFakeEvans

    I’m glad you guys are engaging the ideas of the post. Obviously the picture isn’t tactful. I made that clear in the post. It is crass, and I can’t stand to look at it. It was an attention-grabber, not a statement-maker. And it obviously worked. One of the misconceptions that keeps getting made is that deserved suffering is somehow necessarily related to God’s wrath. We deserve the suffering of this world, but the suffering of this world is not always, or even usually, God’s wrath, though I believe that sometimes it is. Far more often, and always in case of victimization, the suffering of this world is a consequence of God giving man over to sin.

    And Rachel, I don’t hate you. See:
    I love you, and I hope that somehow you’ll begin to see the damage that I believe that you do when you affirm doubt and abandon the natural and traditional readings of various passages of Scripture.

  • zhoag

    Brad, I asked you to leave it at that. Let’s leave it at that.

  • zhoag

    Few things:

    1) Your insistence on continuing to hide behind anonymity even when launching serious and personalized blog attacks like this post speaks to cowardice not courage or biblical fidelity (not to mention “love”). I mean, you won’t even show your name and face in a comment section.

    2) Claiming that you dislike the photo but used it to grab attention is a cop-out. Whether you like it or not, you *believe* it. You believe that a battered woman is getting better than she deserves, and in fact deserves so much more at the hands of a wrathful God in the fires of hell. To believe that means that it is a part of you and your personality and impacts your view of women and people and the world in a total sense. For this reason, I believe you are affirming misogyny and violence towards women, which your picture aptly demonstrates, even if you claim to believe it is only God who can carry out the woman-beating.

    3) I challenge you to attach your face and name to that blog post. See if those who read you and perhaps even know you personally are not horribly offended, hurt, harassed, and alienated. See if there aren’t significant ramifications to posting something like that aimed at a specific individual. Internet scapegoating, bullying, aggression, and harassment are real things, and this is that.

  • Stacey (the kids’ Aunt Tasty)

    Isn’t it funny when we keep hoping the scared little kitties will show their faces and engage with respect? Self respect, even.

    Thank you for addressing this. Truly. Thank you.

  • Tim

    I agree with Girard; that scapegoating is bad, wrong and broken. It’s clear that there are problems on both sides of this Israel issue. Unfortunately, things seem to be more complex than any of us would like. I found this article pretty helpful: