Long ago, I wrote a piece on Truth Cancer and the Redemption of Rebellion. Its point was that heresy tends to mutate into its opposite over time. So we find, for instance, a student writing for the Harvard Crimson who demands that free speech and academic liberty be ruthlessly crushed—in order to protect liberalism.
Likewise, righties somehow manage to go from small government libertarianism to support for making the US an Orwellian national security torture state without noticing the contradiction. And nobody is more certain to become a bullying thug than some Professionally Aggrieved Grievance Professional whose life is built around Stopping Bullying.
Now here in America, we live in the Land of Calvinist culture and Calvinism—being a particularly potent form of heresy—has mutated into its opposite with peculiarly potent force. It retains its joylessness and icy fear that someone, somewhere, is having a good time as it turns everything fun into an exercise in moralism, even when it kills off God and replaces him with social do-goodism. So instead of preachments on observing the Sabbath, we get homilies on having a green vacation. My favorite of these was on NPR a decade or so ago, in which the canon law for obtaining carbon credit indulgences while vacationing was laid out in Talmudic granular detail along with this final buzz-killing caveat: “But can we ever really justify taking vacation at all so long as there is ecological damage happening anywhere in the world?” Love that.
Likewise, the Calvinist missionary impulse and the Calvinist work ethic continue unabated in our culture long after the Calvinist belief in God is dead. Only now the mission is to export hedonistic democratic capitalism with an entirely different Madonna as our icon, preaching an unholy trinity of Mammon, Moloch, and Venus to the world.
Chesterton once remarked that in America we have a feast to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and in England they should have a feast to celebrate their departure. As the English were to discover under Cromwell, Calvinism is famously on the lookout for impurity and tends to seize on those sacrificial victims (such as Charles I) upon whom scorn can be heaped as the group periodically purges itself of shame by means of a scapegoat.
Calvinism did not, of course, invent this deeply human habit. In ancient Greece a cripple or beggar or criminal was cast out of the community in response to a natural disaster or other crisis. In Leviticus 16, a rite for literally laying the sins of the community on a scapegoat is prescribed. In Catholic Europe, Jews were themselves periodically scapegoated by the Gentile majority, as for instance, when the Jews of York were massacred in 1190 as the age-old pattern was played out.
America’s Puritan heritage and its various mutated descendants have done a bang-up job of continuing the periodic human itch to isolate somebody in American culture and exile them, whether from the community or from the ranks of the living. Catholics have been on the receiving end of this as often as not, what with various Know Nothing, KKK, and Nativist movements. But such thinking did not die in the 19th century and remains with us today in various expressions.
The habit of scapegoating is traditionally done by finding somebody within the group who is deemed insufficiently pure—and then suddenly transforming them into a foreign threat to be expelled or killed. Thereby the sins of the community are placed on their head and the community is protected by sacralized violence that purifies from sin.
We’d really like to believe that we left that sort of thing behind in the smoldering ashes of the Tower in York where 150 Jews were suddenly transformed by a mob from “fellow Englishmen” into foreign contagion that needed to be extirpated. But we still are quite capable of this stuff in all kinds of major and minor ways. The greatest major outbreak of this sort of thinking in the past century was, of course, the Holocaust, when the German Jewish community found, to their astonishment, that they were suddenly transformed from being seen as “fellow Germans” to being seen as a foreign bacteria infecting the Reich. The slaughter which followed astonished Jews no less than non-Germans—in no small part because German Jews saw themselves as Germans who shared 99 things out of 100 with their countrymen. Similarly, the European Jewry that followed German Jewry into the camps saw itself primarily as sharing in European civilization and could not comprehend its sudden transformation into a gigantic scapegoat for the ills of Germany.
Of course, not all incidents of scapegoating involve mass murder, but they do generally involve some form of metaphorical death or exile (or attempt at it). So, for instance, we see the same pattern played out in an extremely minor key as Stephen Colbert, who obviously is no racist, does a sketch making fun of racism and is met with the ridiculous spectacle of people in dire need of Insensitivity Training striving to overcome the stereotype that Asians are all highly intelligent. This obvious man of the Left who would not think of seriously engaging in racism is picked, out of a world of Internet and media examples of racism, for outraged opprobrium. Not Pat Robertson (who recently bestowed upon the world the intelligence that Jews don’t fix their cars or mow their lawns because they are too busy polishing their diamonds). Nope. It’s gotta be Colbert, plucked from within the tribe of the Left, who is singled out for sudden declaration as an enemy—despite the bleedin’ obvious fact that he was, in fact, mocking racism. Humor is not a strong suit among the New Puritans any more than among the old. And like the old, they are far more obsessed with finding the Enemy Within than with opposing the obvious opponent without. In Colbert’s case, however, the scapegoating attempt appears to have backfired rather spectacularly.
Another example of a similar dynamic: Alec Baldwin.
Here is a guy who, again, is obviously a huge supporter of LGBT community—a clear insider on the Left. But unfortunately for him, he is a) personally dislikeable and abrasive; b) has made enemies and c) has not grasped a crucial double standard.
The double standard is this: gay people can use the charge of homosexuality as an insult, but nobody else can. Recall Dan Savage calling high schoolers “pansy asses.” Or recall Andrew Sullivan’s strange insistence the Pope Emeritus Benedict is gay as though that’s a bad thing. But let an obnoxious hetero male lefty like Baldwin toss around epithets like “toxic queen” and he runs the grave risk that the scapegoating mob will suddenly target him as foreign contagion when the fever is on.
So to his everlasting confusion and astonishment, Baldwin suddenly found himself the object of a pogrom as the “liberal” LGBT community suddenly turned on him for doing, well, exactly what Dan Savage does when he calls somebody a pansy ass or Andrew Sullivan accuses Benedict of being gay. Baldwin is as hard left as they make ’em, including on all LGBT matters of piety—and yet none of that could save him. He was selected for the anti-sacrament of mercilessness and his sins shall not be forgiven, for he is the Scapegoat. And to drive home the fact that it is the Calvinist Purifying Impulse behind it all, the theological language from the Gay Legion of Menacing Visigoths for Tolerance helpfully casts Baldwin in the role of Satan himself.
Note that. The devil is not, say, Pope Francis (who does, after all, actually teach that gay sex is sinful, despite what the NY Times deludes itself to believe). Nor is he any given GOP candidate, or Pat Buchanan, or even that beloved bogeywoman Sarah Palin, who seems to have finally relaxed her terrifying grip on the mind and viscera of the Left.
Nope. Alec Baldwin of all people, is declared the devil because he hails from within the community and is therefore the ideal scapegoat upon which the community can heap its sins and purge itself in a violent orgy of Righteousness.
Of course, it isn’t just LGBT Paladins of Tolerance who indulge in this sort of Puritan pogrom. Reactionaries on the right, both secular and religious, have more in common with progressive extremists than they care to realize, and also are on constant watch for signs of impurity. Here, for instance, is the Breitbart Inquisition ginning up the troops for a heresy verdict against pot-smoking hippie liberal Bill O’Reilly. His crime: not hating Barack Obama with sufficient intensity.
It seems O’Reilly does not think that the president of the United States is part of a secret cabal that actively wants to destroy the Republic but instead, retaining some sanity, believes that Obama understands himself to be an American who imagines that “American” maps to his set of liberal values. Therefore O’Reilly regards Obama as a patriot—that is, as a lover of the US of A, and not its sworn enemy. He does not think that Obama is right in his judgments about what is good for America, but he does not doubt that Obama thinks he is trying to do good by America and does not subscribe to the fever swamp vision painting the president as a monstrous IslamoAtheistNaziCommunist hater of America willfully bent on its destruction. In short, he strongly disagrees with the president, but is not filled with unreasoning hatred of every atom of his being.
For this act of impurity, O’Reilly might as well be a communist as far as Breitbart’s audience of inquisitors is concerned, and their responses in the comboxes generally run in the “He is dead to me!” vein from people who would agree with O’Reilly on 99 subjects out of 100. Again, it is precisely because he is not Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden or Rahm Emmanuel or some other tribal outsider, but an insider, that the fury directed at him over such a triviality is so intense. Because you can’t purge an outsider. Scapegoating fury is reserved for an insider.
Real Outsiders, looking in, often have difficulty even understanding the nitnoid and granular nature of the quarrel that consumes Insiders bent on a purge. And so outsiders look on in amazement as a man with whom the average Breitbart Combox Inquisitor shares 99 out of 100 things in common is declared a traitor and expelled. Their mouths open and close and nothing comes out as a lefty like Alec Baldwin is suddenly stoned to death by the very people he once urged to stone Henry Hyde.
Catholics, and particularly Reactionary Catholics these days, are not immune from this either. Case in point: The Reactionaries vs. Michael Voris. Here again, on 99 subjects out of 100, Voris and the Reactionaries are on the same page—with one notable exception: Voris steadfastly refuses to indulge in criticism of Pope Francis. I regard this as a very hopeful sign and I sincerely commend him for publicly refusing to join the ranks of the self-appointed saviors of the Church who have fallen under the powerful delusion that God died and designated them to defend the Church against the pope.
But the Reactionaries who loathe and fear Francis with now nearly unbridled hysteria are increasingly bringing pressure against (and ginning up hostility toward) Voris, of all people, in the attempt to get him to fall in line and start ripping the pope as the evil monster they have convinced themselves he is. Whether it is just applying overbearing muscle in the effort to suggest Voris is a bad Catholic for his heretical submission to the pope, or flat out denouncing him for the grave sin of charity toward Francis, the Reactionaries are making it clearer and clearer that even the slightest variation from absolute purity of hatred toward Francis will not be tolerated. Once again it is the insider—the person perceived as hailing from within the tribe of Real Catholics[TM]—who is singled out as the scapegoat in need of punishment and (if no repentance from the grave sins of faith, hope, and charity toward Francis is shown) expulsion. “Neo-Catholics,” us ordinary slobs who actually like Vatican II and find the Paul VI rite of the Mass suits us just fine, don’t even merit consideration for such a bull of excommunication because, again, you can’t kick out an outsider. Novus Ordo riff-raff don’t even count as real Catholics for that subculture.
All of this reminds me of the brilliance and insight of Rene Girard, whose thought about the strange human impulse to create scapegoats eventually wound up bringing him back to the Church when he realized that precisely what God did was enter the human race, not to join the mob of Inquisitors, but to take on the role of the scapegoat. And He did it, not merely for one tribe, but for the whole human race. In doing so non-violently—in letting the whole of human and demonic hatred, viciousness, spite, and sin wash over Him and, as it were, drown Him—Jesus undergoes the baptism in death that His baptism in the Jordan prefigures. He is “made sin for us” as Paul put it (2 Corinthians 5:21) and thereby opens the way for our baptism into His death and our participation in His resurrection.
Small wonder then that Jesus begins His ministry first with that baptism and then with a sojourn in the desert, which is exactly where the scapegoat was driven after the priest placed the sins of the people on it. Likewise, in the sacrificial rites of Moses, the cattle, sheep, and goat offered in the Tabernacle prefigured the sacrifice of Christ:
For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. (Heb 13:11–14)
It is therefore properly the place of the Christian to find himself, from time to time, scapegoated, betrayed, exiled, and even killed. When Christians take the role of the persecutor they betray Christ. When they are persecuted, conversely, Christ reserves a blessing for them:
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)
And that blessing need not be limited merely to those who are visible members of the Christian community. The prophets have, so far as we can tell, no conscious knowledge of Christ, yet share in his blessedness—and in his martyrdom. So might any other person. Why? Because they did the right thing even when punished for it by the world. We are free to hope that any person who obeys his conscience is likewise liable to be rewarded for it through the Holy Spirit. As the parable of the sheep and the goats makes clear, some of the saved are going to be surprised: “Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, in prison?” (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).
This does not mean that anybody unjustly persecuted is therefore bound for heaven. Horst Wessel, the Nazi stormtrooper who became the basis of the Nazi anthem “The Horst Wessel Song” was unjustly murdered, but that doesn’t make him a hero. Just because you are a victim doesn’t mean you can’t be a jerk too. But still and all, in the ordinary run of things, a blessing is pronounced by Christ, not only on those who are persecuted for his sake, but on people who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. As our culture continues to de-Christianize and turn an ever more hostile face, not only to followers of Jesus Christ, but to the weak, the marginalized, the innocent, the vulnerable, the poor, the reviled, and the despised, let us go to our despised Lord outside the camp and welcome in his train every loser, oddball, factory reject, sinner, screwup, failure, jack and jill who tries, however, feebly, to do what is right. It will probably mean going, or even being driven, outside the camp. But that’s where Jesus is.