A Christian Response to Fascism: Part 5 of 16
If you’re new to this series, I’m a pastor countering aspects of fascism with Christian theological critique.
The feature we’ll tackle this time around includes sowing division, appealing to fear of minority groups, and what Umberto Eco calls “obsession with a plot” that inflames the idea of enemy threats both within and outside of the nation (though I’ll also focus on the latter in its own post later on, since it deserves a deeper treatment).
Yale Professor Jason Stanley (in an article written by Josh Jones) writes: “Fascist leaders sow division; they succeed by ‘turing groups against each other,’ inflaming historical antagonisms and ancient hatres for their own advantage.” They create scapegoats.
To do so, such leaders blow on racist and homophobic embers (often poorly) hidden beneath the dominant social group in order to create false chaotic scenarios that the authoritarian leader claims only they can manage.
The most handy example this week is Trump using inflamatory language to describe the “caravan” of Guatemala migrants, igniting frears that U.S. borders are overrun with terrorists, criminals, and people hoping to live off of “hardworking Americans’ taxes.” Reality: most of those Guatemalans seek assylum from violence. And they will not overrun American borders; there is and always has been a system by which we process assylum seekers. Sending 15,000 troops to guard the border against 5,000 hungry, tired, poor refugees is a calculated effort to inflame a group of people susceptible to the fear of immigrants. Trump deliberately employed strong rhetoric to drive people to vote for his party in fear of what could happen if they don’t continue empowering “law and order” candidates.
When people protest this sort of behavior, the leader labels dissenters “the mob.” In this way, the authoritarian leader projects his own mischief onto those trying to hold him accountable.
I’ve written about scapegoat theory at length elsewhere (see the book I wrote with Ken Wilson and a previous blogpost), but it’s worth repeating in brief here, because it hits at the crux of why Christians need to be able to discern when it’s happening.
Anthropologist and literary critic Dr. René Girard, who finished his career at Stanford University, developed a theory over the course of his life called Scapegoat Theory, which purports to explain the origins of how and why groups self-destruct.
“Fascist leaders sow division; they succeed by ‘turning groups against each other,’ inflaming historical antagonisms and ancient hatreds for their own advantage.”
Humans discovered a mechanism over time, says Girard, that prevents full-scale violence from breaking out. To save their communities from self-implosion, the group members identified a scapegoat on which to project their collective anxiety and envy and rivalry. The scapegoat could be an individual or a small group of people who are singled out for being different. It’s important to keep in mind that the scapegoat mechanism is largely unconscious. We now use the term “scapegoat” to refer to innocent victims thought to be guilty. But the members of the group who turn on a scapegoat don’t view the victim as innocent. Instead, they view the scapegoated individual or group as guilty of the crimes of which they are accused.
The difference(s) a group identifies to mark a scapegoat can be anything. It can be sexual orientation, it can be race, stuttering, the kid with the uncool hair, being an immigrant, being differently-abled — anything that makes a person or group of people other. It could even be that they are part of the 1%; the rich and powerful, rulers and royalty and celebrities, are just as vulnerable to becoming scapegoats as anyone in a group.
Once a scapegoat is identified, the larger group succumbs to a form of mob mentality and falsely accuse the scapegoat of a taboo crime in order to dehumanize them.
For example, in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Trump tried (with mixed success) to make scapegoats of several groups. Two prime examples include undocumented Mexican immigrants and legal Syrian Muslim refugees.
Trump accused undocumented Mexican immigrants of being rapists and Muslim refugees of being terrorists infiltrating our country. Rape and terrorism: two taboo crimes. The narratives can then serve to make these groups other so we do not feel bad when we eventually put measures in place to purge them from us. By the time we implement such policies they are no longer us … they are mostly rapists and terrorists — and we have to protect ourselves, right? This kind of thinking justifies policies like building a wall along the Mexican border, separating children from their families and placing them in holding facilities, banning travel to the U.S. from specified Muslim countries, aggressive enforcement tactics by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and pardoning an unpopular sheriff who defied the Bill of Rights by illegally detaining people of color in Arizona and mistreating and torturing them.
Immigrants are no more prone to illegal activity than the general population.
Immigrants are no more prone to illegal activity than the general population. However, one in five adult women in the United States is a victim of rape or attempted rape — not by undocumented Mexican immigrants, but by American citizens, and often someone the woman knows. And almost half of all American women have been victims of other types of sexual violence, including unwanted sexual contact and sexual coercion.
Similarly, the vast majority of terrorist attacks and mass murders carried out in our country are carried out by white American men. Not Muslims. Not immigrants. Not refugees. There are, of course, exceptions. However, the FBI reports that 94% of terrorist attacks in the U.S. between 1980 and 2005 were committed by non-Muslims (Federal Bureau of Investigation Counterterrorism Division 57–66).
Homegrown Americans are the rapists and terrorists; we are a very violent people. Just yesterday, a white ex-marine shot and killed twelve people in a California nightclub. And a week and a half ago a white man shot and killed eleven Jewish people in Pittsburgh. Number of people hurt by a “caravan” of Guatemalan refugees? Zero.
When we succumb to the mob mentality of scapegoating we project our violence onto them. They carry our sins. They become the violent ones, instead of us. The psychological projection relieves us of guilty feelings and of having to figure out together why our society is so violent and what kind of difficult emotional and spiritual work we need to do to solve the actual issues. We direct our collective energy toward a scapegoat because the process of examining our awful feelings of guilt and shame seem overwhelming and uncontrollable. It feels better fixating on something we perceive we can manage. “Managing” immigration policies feels easier than trying to “manage” our own violence, fear, and rivalries.
Girard tells us the projection of sin and anxiety onto the scapegoat has the effect of unifying the group (which he sometimes refers to as a mob) against the scapegoat and relieving the group’s anxiety about its own corporate sins. It even unifies people who would normally defend the scapegoat.
This is a key point, the idea that if anxiety and tension within a group is high enough, people will coalesce against a vulnerable person or group of people. When it happens, mob amalgamation around a scapegoat(s) often takes the form of silence.
Interestingly, Girard — having studied ancient myths, literature, and history at length — read the Bible and recognized that the narrative had the effect of exposing the human tendency to scapegoat and teaching humans how to relinquish this impulse. According to Jewish scholar Sandor Goodhart, this unveiling can be found throughout the Hewbrew Scriptures, and the Hebrew Bible alone can provide this insight. I believe and affirm him in this. And, as a Christian, I also find the call to repent of scapegoating and mob formation in the story of Jesus.
Jesus himself was scapegoated by humans — Jew and Gentile alike, not the anti-Semitic belief that it was Jews alone. It was Jew and Gentile, representing all of humanity. Humans killed Jesus, projecting our own sin onto an innocent. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he decalared our human verdict of “guilty” unjust. It is categorically UNJUST to label innocent vulnerable humans (individuals and minority groups) guilty to relieve our own anxiety. We Christians are called to repent of this behavior. We are called to leave the accusing mob (the Hebrew word satan means accuser) and be filled with a spirit called Paraclete (the Greek word paraclete means advocate). We are to advocate for the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised, the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the outsider … not use them to stoke fear.
Any leader using his position to laser-focus on minorities to stoke fear of lawlessness should be held accountable. Any Christian supporting such leaders should be aware that what they support is anti-Christ.