NASA is conducting a serious study on whether "industrial civilisation is headed for 'irreversible collapse.'" Climate scientists are warning that positive feedback mechanisms are may make the effects of climate change far greater than we first thought. Conversations that include us in the likely species which will be extinct are no longer the province of crazy American survivalists.
The raw fear such issues generate in us has many parallels in a world which feels increasingly insecure. The anxiety felt by a fifty year old who works for Holden or Ford; the fear of a lifelong Qantas employee; school kids who see no prospect of a job while rich politicians "tighten" benefits; all these folk live with nagging fear about their future while the disasters of the wider world stream live into their smart phones.
Nothing stays the same. And unlike earlier decades, there is no pretending society is "on the way up." We are afraid. We are a society ripe for violence as fear, frustration, and resentment fester.
The ways societies typically react when they face a crisis that feels like they are falling apart, cluster around two poles.
One way is to descend into incoherent violence. Although a friend causes me to smile when he says Australian democracy's greatest protection is our innate apathy, he is wrong. Our great protection has been our wealth, and our relatively egalitarian society. There has been no need to riot, no point. This may change.
The long term festering protests in Thailand, or the all out war in Syria, take energy and desperation for people to risk becoming involved, and for staying involved. That desperation comes from hopelessness in the face of sustained injustice. Finally it becomes a question of, "What is there to lose?" And at some point such violence can morph from relatively brief catharsis into self-sustaining rage and revenge that can last for years.
The other pole of this unholy pair is to scapegoat an individual or group. Finding someone to blame helps restore solidarity and confidence in a divided and anxious society. We can all, friend and enemy, master and oppressed, discern a new friendship as we stand united against a common enemy. When there is no actual army landing on our shores we pick a small group who cannot fight back or speak up for themselves to point out our lies. It's best if they have a clear point of difference, like skin colour or religion.
In Australia, helpless in the face of our growing social disintegration— and it need only be the sense of this disintegration, little reality is required— both major parties have fixed upon refugees who come by boat as the scapegoat. We have fallen in line behind them. The enemy, against whom our troops fought in Iran and Afghanistan, is now a hoard on the shifting maritime border with Indonesia. So we send warships to intercept the women and children who threaten our livelihood, and hold military briefings which hide the truth.
Why? We need an enemy! Who minds that our Great High Priest Tony Abbott is cutting tax for the rich? He is keeping the nation safe! And when the artists of the Sydney Biennale call bullshit on the sponsoring company (Transfield) then Arch Deacon Brandis springs into action, complaining that a contractor to our concentration camps is being bullied. Why? We need this enemy. We will collapse into civil chaos if we lose the cohesion the enemy gives us. Or lose government.
"God forgive them, for they know not what the do." What poor religion is this?
Well, we have our dead body, a refugee murdered on Manus Island just as Jesus was murdered by the Tony Abbott and George Brandis of his day; although then known as Caiaphas and Pilate. No one has ever believed that Pilate's pre-emptive hand washing absolved him one fraction, or removed one drop of bloody responsibility in that murder.
In that story the political elite whipped up the support of the crowd. In another long ongoing scapegoating of the innocent, Christians have often blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus. That is a denial of the intent of the text. The cry "Crucify him!" is meant to indicate that the people of the nation are responsible, not just the Caiaphas and Pilate of a particular time. Abbott and Brandis are our willing leaders— by doing all this they maintain first of all not the security of the country but their own privilege— yet we too have the blood on Manus Island on our hands. We voted for them already knowing the consequences of our detention camps.
The question for we little people is whether we will become clients to the patronage of Abbott and his ilk. Will we accept blood on our hands for the relative affluence, peace, and security— illusory though it may be— at the expense of the well being and humanity of other people like us? Patronage buys bread and circuses, and pays for art, but can become a slavery. The client may sell their soul to the patron for some small reward, while the patron buys more privilege and immunity from prosecution according to the laws of ordinary human decency. The Biennale artists have refused slavery. Of course Brandis is upset. The peasants are revolting.
Scapegoating and the bullying which attends it, such as Brandis' threats to cut artists' funding, is the sign the government has no answers of its own. In the church, the old joke goes that a preacher's notes had a margin note which said, "Weak argument here, shout louder." Stridency, bullying, and machismo are all signs of intellectual weakness and poverty. Abbott has no real answers so he must shout louder, bully, and scapegoat. In a very real sense the budgie smugglers are his version of the emperor's new clothes.
Australia's utterly evil treatment of refuges is not a party political problem; neither side has answers and both of them are in on the scapegoating. Our scapegoating is an humanitarian issue which goes to the heart of what it means to be human.
The way we treat refugees is the canary in our coal mine, the first hint of poison gas rising. It is the first sign of a new spirit of scapegoating which will be visited upon an ever growing range of minorities unless we change our fundamental attitudes about what it means to be human.
Niemoller's confession remains true.
First they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out -because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out -because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me!
Because it goes to the heart of what it means to be human, our treatment of refugees is also a theological issue.
The Christian story, if one repudiates the Anselmic apostasy of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, teaches us much through the scapegoating murder of Jesus by the Roman and Jewish political elites. In crude terms, we learn first that God still loves us, because "God comes back." We cannot, if we claim to follow God, abandon even the murderers, because despite the murder of his innocent Son God remains with us! How then can we abandon innocent refugees?
Second, resurrection vindicates Jesus. It says the Jesus' teaching about how to be human still stands.
And third, scapegoating is unacceptable as a social strategy. It is virtual murder which too often becomes actual.
The gospel narratives expose the nature of Jesus' death: "It is better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed." (John 11:50, 18:14) Yet this man was innocent. (Luke 23:47)
His is the crowning murder in Jerusalem which stones and murders the prophets, (Luke 13:34) and here, "Jerusalem" stands for all cities and nations. His murder is the culmination of the Hebrew Scriptures' exposé of a long litany of violence and oppression. In this exposé the poor and marginalised are finally given a voice, and so the nation slowly learns what it means to be just.
Scapegoats are meant to be invisible. "That Jewish carpenter who lived at the end of the street was evil," the Nazis wanted us to say. The "evil" is meant to be somehow self-evident in our minds when we scapegoat. If we question the reality of the "evil", then our killing is not cleansing us and healing us of evil; instead it becomes us being evil.
Yet in Jerusalem the death of the Jewish carpenter clearly was evil, was murder. We see we are to live in some other way when we are in crisis. Scapegoating does not cleanse. It only adds to the evil. It must stop.
Religious myth… is fundamentally about obfuscation, about hiding a truth. What truth? That human society has been built atop and is still built atop murder…
[The gospel narratives repudiate this myth.] Because a second story is being overlaid this mythic scapegoat story [of Jesus' death]. As readers we get access to the backstage of the drama. We get to see all the props, the makeup room, and the nervous pacing of the actors before they wander onstage. The gospel authors lift the veil of mystery for us. The scapegoating sacrifice, what is believed to be the product and demand of the gods, is now revealed in the gospel narratives for what it really is: The killing of an innocent man by self-interested parties who wish to retain their power and the status quo. (Richard Beck)
So Jesus, who was innocent, who is the vindicated Son of God, given all authority in heaven and on earth, (Matthew 28:18) calls us to be neighbours with the Jewish man at the end of the street, and the Ethiopians, and the Muslim women in our suburb. "You shall love your neighbour as yourself," is one of the two great commandments. The other one, "which is like it," is "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind." (Matthew 22:34:39, Luke 10: 25 -37)
We cannot love God, we are never loving God, unless we love our neighbour as ourselves. The two commands are inseparable and interpret each other. Remember that the neighbour Jesus used to illustrate this point (Luke 10: 25 -37) was a Samaritan, a sworn enemy of Jesus' people, and one ripe for scapegoating. But he was the true neighbour in that story, not the members of the religious elite.
Perhaps the final Christian word on this comes from Paul the apostle. His old self, Saul, enacted violence against followers of Jesus, putting women and men in prison for being different. On the road to Damascus, this Saul had a blinding epiphany. The voice of Jesus cried to him, "Why do you persecute me?" (Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-9) Saul became Paul, seeing the need for an entirely different way of living. Why?
When we scapegoat, we persecute the Christ. We crucify him again. The death in Manus Island is a re-crucifixion of Christ because we have not learned the lessons of Jesus' death, and because we will not face our own fears, but seek to project them onto scapegoated refugees.
What must we do?
Political action in support of refugees is good.
But these are correctives, necessary, but not the root of the matter. More fundamental is the need to face our fears of social disintegration, financial decline, and even of apocalypse. I think we do that most effectively by being a neighbour; by truly honouring the neighbours who are different from us; by not shifting out to "better suburbs"; by making real friends in our street; by especially honouring the poor and the weak— "do not forget the orphan, the widow, and the stranger in your midst." At its best, Israel saw this as integral to remaining free of the slavery of Egypt.
It behoves me as a relatively well-off white male to especially befriend and honour the African, Indian and Hazara women of my community; to be polite and encourage— even simply acknowledge!— the checkout folk and the trolley collectors; not to project my self-disgust onto the obese poor of Elizabeth, or flinch away from the starving drug addicts and alcoholics.
When we are neighbours, we have friends, security, and a better solidarity with which to face our crises. We are, in fact, civilised. Refugees become people like us.
For a brief reading of the Girardian theory behind this post read Richard Beck' series which starts here.
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