Scapegoating the Essential Worker
At the beginning of the onset of the economic shut-downs and stay at home orders—and especially now over the last few weeks as states and communities have talked about “reopening the economy,” –there’s been a small but vocal minority suggesting that we be willing to sacrifice some for the sake of the greater whole.
Amongst other things, politicians and political talking heads have suggested that older Americans should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy.
Let me be clear that while I do understand many people’s desires for a loosening of restrictions because of their very real need to earn an income and provide for their family, it’s been startling to see this movement to essentially force people to go to work even if it isn’t safe to do so.
But, if we’re honest, it’s emblematic of what we’ve seen since the beginning of this outbreak; “essential” workers such as grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, and warehouse workers required to go to work without adequate PPE.
In short, it demonstrates how willing we are as a society to literally sacrifice some people for the sake of the many.
For instance, after news broke of a spike in Covid-deaths at meat packing plants across the country, seven so far at one Colorado plant alone, our government moved to require plants to stay open rather than advocate for safer working conditions.
In New York City, a subway driver wrote an op-ed for the New York Times stating that “the conditions created by the pandemic drive home the fact that we essential workers…are not essential. We are sacrificial.”
Ms. Gidla’s words speak to a trend I’ve noticed since the beginning of the outbreak.
All this glorification of grocery clerks, warehouse workers, and delivery drivers as heroes really only serves to make us feel better about their sacrifice of health and life. After all, that’s what we expect of heroes. Only, these sacrificial heroes have largely done so unwittingly, lacking adequate pay or protective equipment called for in circumstances such as these.
But, this willingness to sacrifice some for the sake of the many has been around as long as America has existed as a nation.
For centuries, it’s been the same way. Someone always has to pay the price.
From slavery and Jim Crow, to the genocidal treatment of Native American populations, our nation has long operated under the premise that it is necessary and even right to sacrifice some in order to take care of the many.
Perhaps the only difference between now and then is rather than demonizing or dehumanizing our victims, we are glorifying them before leading them to slaughter.
The centrality of sacrifice, this demanding of victims, is so prevalent in the history and culture of America, because it’s so prevalent in the recent history and culture of Christianity.
If you’ve spent any length of time in church, like me you were probably taught that God sent Jesus to die on the cross to be the atonement or the compensation for our sins as humanity. Basically, someone had to pay the price. And that person was Jesus.
And while I’m not intending to diminish or devalue in any way the death-crucifixion-and resurrection of Jesus—it is after all the linchpin of Christianity.
I do want to say that it is widely misunderstood. And this misunderstanding leads to some really problematic outcomes. When we think it works to sacrifice someone else to solve a problem, we keep doing it again and again and again.
So, we get into this endless of cycle of continually needing to sacrifice some in order to “protect” the many.
And, to make matters worse, since people generally don’t like to be unnecessarily punished or killed, the victims of our scapegoating are almost always the marginalized, the outsiders, and the innocent.
And again, where this ties back into Christianity is that rather than Christ’s death being the decisive event for humanity—it’s rather just the prototype.
Whenever there is wrongdoing, whenever there is danger, whenever there is risk—we can simply sacrifice some for the sake of the many.
We can sacrifice the marginalized, the outsiders, and the innocent—just as Jesus was, believing it will fix things.
But, here’s the thing.
Violence only begets more violence.
And we just find ourselves in this unending cycle of violence and destruction.
But, beyond the futility and uselessness of this model for bringing real and lasting progress,
It’s also just not biblical.
If we think back over the many stories of the Bible—we do not find innocent victims sacrificed for the greater good—rather we see such actions to be empty and ineffectual.
If you remember the story of Abraham and his son Isaac.
Initially, God suggested Abram sacrifice his only son Isaac, but then intervened at the last minute to stop the killing. Why did God have Abram go through the ordeal other than to show how ridiculous was the idea of child sacrifice in the first place? That the death of an innocent victim could appease the gods is ludicrous.
If you remember the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, his brothers sold him into slavery because they deemed him “the problem,” But, in Egypt, Joseph is eventually vindicated and leads the nation through a great famine, then he is the one to reunite his family.
And of course, in the story of Jesus, is where the empty lies of scapegoating for sacrifice are laid bare for all to see.
When Jesus was crucified and killed on the cross, he was the ultimate example.
Not as to the redemptive value of sacrifice—but rather the ridiculousness of it.
So many people back then thought it they could kill him, that would solve everything.
They were wrong.
Luke 23:33-34, 47 “Father, forgive them,” Jesus said on the cross, “they know not what they do.”
When the Romans crucified and killed Jesus, they (the Pilate, the Romans, Jewish leaders) tried to pin all the blame on him. But, far to their surprise, they would not have the final word!
Jesus conquered the grave and in so doing declared, “I’m innocent, I didn’t deserve this—no one deserves this. What you did is wrong. Innocent people don’t need to die for the sake of others.”
In Jesus, we see a God who loves and welcomes all—"and is not willing that any should perish—but that all should have eternal life.”
Today, in our current time and place, we still have many a leader who believe the right thing to do is to sacrifice the innocent for the many. In truth, they believe that innocent people need to die to the sake of others.
And, worst of all, many of the very people professing this way of thinking are themselves Christians.
But, as theologian Mark Heim wrote;
“To believe in the crucified one is to want no other victims. To depend on the blood of Jesus is to refuse to depend on the sacrificial blood of anyone else. It is to swear off scapegoats Each and every time we partake in communion, we’re not celebrating Christ’s sacrificial death—rather—each time we hear “’Do this in remembrance of me,’ we hear the implied contrast. Do this instead of offering new victims.”
Do this instead of sacrificing others.
When we remember Jesus, when we understand him as an innocent victim of scapegoating violence and rather as God’s radical love and inclusion in the flesh—it changes our entire way of looking at the world.
No longer are we content to idly stand by and watch innocent people suffer for the greater “good.”
No longer can we keep allowing the weak, the marginalized, the outsiders to be victimized.
Rather, in Jesus, we see this idea exposed for its very evil and demonic nature—the lie that we can find peace and safety by sacrificing others.
And, when we begin to see that, it drastically changes the way we look at the world.
Demanding others go into work for the sake of the economy isn’t freedom—it’s evil.
Forcing people to go about their business without PPE isn’t patriotic—it’s demonic.
Asking the elderly to sacrifice themselves for financial growth isn’t noble—it’s corrupt.
In Jesus, God showed once and for all, the vile and ridiculous nature of scapegoating and sacrifice.
We today, in our current time and place, can follow the way of Jesus and continue on the path paved by his disciples, not by demanding that others unwillingly sacrifice themselves for our own good.
Rather, we follow the way of Jesus by advocating for the weak, the marginalized, the outsiders.
We follow the way of Jesus by ensuring fair pay and PPE for grocery store workers.
We follow the way of Jesus by asking for safe working conditions for warehouse workers.
We follow the way of Jesus by protecting the most vulnerable among us.
Because, as Jesus death—and crucifixion—most powerfully make clear, we are not saved by sacrifice
—we are saved from the very idea that violence is the answer.