Sterling and Scapegoats

It was a fortuitous coincidence that at the same time Spring Academy Week here at the seminary was taking place, Donald Sterling’s racist chickens were finally coming home to roost.  Why this was fortuitous for us here at Gettysburg is that we heard two fabulous presentations Tuesday and Wednesday that related directly to what was happening in the NBA this week.

First, I want to mention Dr. McKinley Melton’s presentation [professor at Gettysburg College]–he was our MLK speaker, and two things he said were really interesting.  First, he used the metaphor of needing to dismantle a crumbling house [he was speaking about the language of “stones crying out,” which we find both in Luke and in Habakkuk–it was a great lecture!] and how hard that is, because even though the house is in shambles, people live there & consider it their home.  However, what they fail to see is that it is really a prison from which they need to be liberated; so the work is both opening people’s eyes to the reality of the situation [like institutionalized racism] and also dismantling it together.  It’s hard!

The other thing he mentioned was this great James Baldwin quote:  “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.”  I think the same thing is true for theology, and perhaps even more the prophetic role of the church:  our call is to expose the questions that the rote answers were designed to cover up.

And that’s my transition to Ted Peters’ talk and scapegoating.  If you don’t know what a scapegoat is, go back and read Leviticus 16.  That’s where the Bible describing the scapegoat that we might argue is present in all human societies:  heaping the sins on one “goat” and then driving that goat out into the “wilderness” such that the rest of us can have reconciliation and forgiveness.  If you have been following the Sterling story, you have seen the scapegoating mechanism at work.  [And incidentally, the mechanism functions whether or not the scapegoat is guilty or innocent].  So, Sterling [a longstanding
“practicing” racist by all accounts] was driven out of the NBA, the Clippers organization and fans united around the slogan “We Are One,” and everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The problem with scapegoating however, it that [just like the Baldwin quote above], the reconciliation it affects can mask deeper problems and hide ongoing injustice, making us all feel good while allowing us to avoid confronting our own lingering sinfulness.  The following article in The New York Times describes exactly this problem.

This quote from the article is particularly pertinent:  “But where does the N.B.A. go now? With the public flogging over, some will declare the issue dead and the bad guy in the black hat vanquished. If that is the result, we will all miss a golden opportunity for a deeper exploration of racism.”

The theological insight that Peters offers here is that in the resurrection of Jesus, who was executed as a scapegoat [“better that one die and the nation be preserved;” “from that day forward Pilate and Herod were friends”], God sides with the scapegoat and rejects the mechanism of a sacrifice to earn peace and gain blessing.  AND, the New Testament, in remembering the victim rather than the reconciliation, stands a witness to us that we are both called and invited to abandon our practice of self-justification [which so often includes scapegoating] and accept God’s justification of us instead, and live into the freedom that justification creates.  The message of the resurrection?  “No more scapegoats!”

We love to do it, but it doesn’t work; and whether or not you think Sterling’s punishment was deserved, we are missing a great opportunity if we simply allow him to function as a scapegoat and ignore the difficult and lingering questions about racism in our society and in ourselves that this “answer” is trying to hide.

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