By BOB FUSELIER
An essay about religion and racism by an old, white man raised in the Christian faith and in the deep South before and during desegregation would seem to hold a good chance of coming across as an extreme example of white mansplaining. I hope it doesn’t.
Scapegoating is a word we seldom use in our daily lives but is something we all fear and have feared from an early age. It requires a victim (a person or persons innocent of the crimes laid upon them) and a victimizer (a person or persons looking to place their sufferings on another).
It is commonplace today to see people claim to be a victim, but it is a rare event to see someone claim to be a victimizer. We avoid it all cost, for we seem to know that a victimizer who stands alone can easily become the victim. Yet, none of us is free of the pull of the victimizing role. When we feel threatened, we can quickly feel the urge to rally as many as we can around us in opposition to someone we feel is vulnerable.
One of the most common examples of scapegoating is something we all have tried. It carries an innocent name, gossip, but it can deliver a deadly blow of half-truths and innuendoes thrown in a victim’s direction. These stones of words can even be true, but they are never meant to offer truth. Their only purpose is to demonize someone to a level below contempt so that others feel no shame joining up with our lynch mob. Racism is just an extreme level of the scapegoating potential that is part of our human nature.
As someone raised in a Christian tradition, I view the Bible as a collection of literary forms that tell the story of a people as they struggle with their collective choice between a God of vengeful anger who demands their devotion and sacrifice and, in return, deals out judgment and a God who sides with and becomes the sacrificial victim in order to reveal the answer to our thirst for sacrificial violence; that answer being a transcendent and incomprehensible love that is offered to all as Grace.
The final act of this work of literature that was composed over centuries depicts a story of a divine being that takes on the human form of a Jewish laborer by the name of Jesus. This Jew takes comfort in living with the oppressed and marginalized, rebukes the sacrificial-loving ideology of his time, accepts the role of the victim himself, and dies the death of an innocent scapegoat.
Whether you view the stories of Jesus through a Christian lens or not, a reading of the Gospels will show that Jesus preached an ideology that was counter to that of the religious-political powers that controlled his society. Yet he lived within their laws, breaking them on the rare occasion to make a point of their hypocrisy.
Jesus spoke out often in defense of the marginalized and against scapegoating. Most all know of the parable of the good Samaritan. His defense of the adulterous women brought to him for condemnation speaks volumes against the scapegoating mechanism. His parable of the beam and the splinter and his directive to love our enemies points towards the cause and cure of our tendency to scapegoat.
And then he gives us this warning: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill, and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…”
Most of us in Western society, whether Christian or not, have heard of this directive in one form or another. But, until recently, I knew of no one who could explain the continuation of the last verse quoted above, “… and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa’, will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.”
Raqa? I knew it was Aramaic, the language spoken in the area of Israel 2000 years ago, but what is its significance? That question was answered for me a few years ago when my wife and I attended a conference on violence in Holland, Michigan.
The conference was held at Hope College, which was founded by members of the Dutch Reformed Church in the mid 1800’s. The presentation was given by an Irishman, whose name I’ve forgotten but who was very involved in the Northern Ireland conflict known as The Troubles, and an ex-Catholic priest by the name of James Alison. Although I’m aware that these labels may evoke emotional responses in some, I’ve included them to highlight the diversity within the religious communities of those who brought this conference together.
The Irishman, a Catholic, told the story of how he became aware of his role in the scapegoating mechanism when a minister from the Dutch Reformed Church visited him in Ireland during the conflict. As the Irishman explained to the minister his view of the conflict, an explanation that was not kind to the Protestants, the minister approached him, gave him a hug, and said, “You are part of the problem.” The Irishman talked at length of how difficult that was to hear, let alone process. But, because the message was delivered with kindness through love, his heart was opened to the Truth. He was eventually able to help bring peace to Northern Ireland.
James Alison then presented Rene Girard’s concept of the scapegoating mechanism with a twist that included the passage about raqa quoted above. He began by explaining that it’s critical to recognize the importance of the inclusion of just one Aramaic word in the Greek translation of the original Aramaic text. The word raqa was then kept in its original Aramaic form when the Greek was later translated into English.
Raqa carries a very dismissive meaning, something akin to you useless, valueless thing. Alison offered that the Aramaic word raqa was not translated because its original use was meant to signify an insult to a local person. He then noted that the Greek term for “you fool” was translated as “you fool”, suggesting that the original term for “you fool” was not translated as an Aramaic word because it was not originally meant to be directed to someone who spoke Aramaic. It was a foreign word in the original text and would have been used as an insult to a foreigner.
The last piece of context that must be understood is the use of various terms denoting a concept of judgment: “liable to judgment”, “answerable to the Sanhedrin” and “liable to fiery Gehenna”. Allison pointed out that these variations are equally critical in understanding the full message of the passage.
According to Alison, “liable to judgment” is used to equate the severity of the consequences of murder and anger; the Hebrew God views them as equally harmful, which said a lot about the consequences of anger to the Jewish people of that time.
The level of judgment bestowed upon he who uses “raqa” as an insult seems to come down a bit. The Sanhedrin was the high court of the Jewish people – think of the it as the Supreme Court for us Americans. Using raqa was bad; it was a major local offense, but not the same as murder.
Then we’re back at a very high level of judgment signified by “fiery Gehenna”. Gehenna was more than just a nod towards the threat of eternal damnation. It was the valley in which the early Hebrew people offered their sons in a fiery sacrifice to appease their gods. Using the term for “you fool”, i.e., condemning someone from another culture, would not only lead the offender to experience a living hell, but could also lead the community to experience the violent consequences of the scapegoating, sacrificial system of the early Hebrew people.
With that context understood, let me retranslate the passage.
“You already know that murder is bad. But I tell you that anger is equally bad. It leads to labeling and cursing of others. When you curse and scapegoat your neighbor (using raqa), that’s bad. You’ll be taken to the highest court in our land in hopes that the damage can be mitigated. However, when you curse and scapegoat someone of another culture, all hell may break out for there is no human court that can mitigate the damage, and you will take us all back to the times of human sacrifice.”
Alison’s interpretation of this passage will likely be challenged by those who disagree with its meaning. But I’ve heard of none better. The good news about having a 2000yr old passage warning of the dire consequences of racism is that we can rest assured that we didn’t invent it. But it’s here and growing in our society today, and I, for one, don’t want to return to the violent sacrificial systems that governed our earlier societies. I’ll be heeding the 2000yr old warning and doing my best to check any anger.