Drop the Scapegoat! The Pragmatic Case for Christian Nonviolence

Our culture is engaged in a cinematic Mexican standoff, but the weapons we point at each other are real only as long as we believe they are. If we broke the fourth wall of our shared fantasy script, we’d realize that all our weapons are actually harmless (but we really don’t want to do that).

Every faction in this standoff believes that the weapons are real, but if we all drop our weapons, we’ll find out how harmless they actually are. Rather than a heavy metallic thunk, they give a plastic clack upon hitting the ground. The only way to solve this problem is for someone to be the adult in the room, put down their plastic weapons, and create a reciprocal pattern of confidence amongst the other standoff participants. As long as all the parties believe that their weapons are real and keep the standoff going, everyone continues to suffer.

Picture our cultural rivalries as hostage standoffs. Each group holds onto a scapegoat which they threaten with deadly force. They feel completely justified in holding their respective scapegoats; they believe that their goat is truly deserving of such a life-threatening predicament. Each faction thinks that if they let go of their scapegoat, they will be harmed by the other members’ scapegoating power; that they themselves will become the ultimate scapegoat for all the other factions. So instead, they hold their own pet scapegoat as leverage.

The factions engaged in this no-win situation are legion, but the one I want to single out is the Church. Jesus’ scandalous cultural paradigm of “taking up our cross” to follow him necessarily means that the Church should be the adult in the room. The Church should begin the slow, humbling process of cultural reformation by dropping its collective scapegoats so that other parties begin to imitate.

80% of Americans identify as Christian, including 87% of black Americans and 98% of Hispanic Americans. People may cite dramatically lower church attendance and doctrinal assent numbers, but the fact remains that in a time when racial, class, gender, and ethnic identities continue to divide us, we are still overwhelmingly a culture of self-identified “Christ followers” or, in plain speak, wannabe Jesus imitators. That’s a cultural fact with which the Church should work.

Instead, churches are largely content to run their programs like safe ideological market niches, each segregated to a nit-picked historical schism of perfected mental assent, class-based trends, or (increasingly) fashion. ‘Grace’ is thrown around as a cheap pacifier, so long as it’s not applied towards awakening Christians to the collective violence they endorse by hiring politicians to continue needless foreign aggression, economic coercion, and mass incarceration. That would be too hard.

So instead, progressive churches hand out clam chowder and cookies to the homeless, but they won’t dare tell the community to end its hiring of politicians who create generations of no-win wars and violent, state rigged-ulations (which themselves create much of the systemic poverty and mental issues that plague the homeless). Yes, give the cookie and the hug, but if church leaders cannot speak honestly about the implications of Jesus’ command to “Do not repay evil with violence,” then let the homeless damn that cookie. Such a hug is of Judas, not Jesus.

Meanwhile, evangelical churches are content to make half-baked appeals to ‘life’ every four years in reference to whatever Republican candidate is up for the presidency. By listening to them, you’d think that protecting nonviolent persons from acts of violence only applies to unborn children in the womb and evangelical wedding cake bakers. They, like their liberal brethren, don’t understand that if they accede to the principle that law should become a sword (rather than a shield) in order to violently stop nonviolent acts that they deem to be vices, the only result is anti-law chaos. It becomes a never-ending standoff of scapegoaters creating new laws to scapegoat a diversity of nonviolent people: drug users, prostitutes, startup innovators, evangelical cake bakers, guys with broken tail-lights, raw milk drinkers, alternative medicine advocates, those who wish to opt out of funding government schools, or resistance overseas in countries that the government casually bombs for the benefit of high finance and monetary interests.

Laws should be an unchanging shield; they are only an extension of our own individual ethical rights to defend property and life from acts of physical violence. If you saw your neighbors assaulting an old lady, it would be ethical to use defensive force to stop the act. This principal can thus be extended to the collective community as a law against assault. But what if your neighbors were using drugs in the confines of their own home? Would you be within your ethical right to barge into their house with weapons, tackle them, put your knee on the back of their head, taze them, and lock them in your basement until they served enough time to atone? Of course not, and so you shouldn’t hire anyone else to make a law that does that very same thing.

Be the Church—the called out ones—who insist on sacrificing the fear of our neighbors, rather than sacrificing our neighbors. That is what it means to beat our swords into ploughshares in imitation of Jesus.

That’s the ethical argument for Christian nonviolence as law. Yet for some of us, the nonviolent teachings and actions of Jesus are only suggestions and lofty sentiments that we can compartmentalize into the sky. On Earth, the word ‘Jesus’ is relegated to a cultural term for belonging to a clan, or perhaps a ticket into self-assurance or for guilt therapy sessions. We don’t care to understand how “Jesus is Lord” changes “Caesar is Lord” into a radically different paradigm, especially for Christians living under a democratic ‘Caesar’ which maintains its scope and power with their own active consent.

So what about the practical, pragmatic, or even cynical amongst us who are unmotivated by appeals to Jesus’ ethics? That brings us back to the analogy of the cultural Mexican standoff. If the Church does not teach its parishioners to let go of their pet scapegoats, then the Church will increasingly be consumed by the division created by that dereliction of moral clarity. For the left, the sins of whiteness, economic freedom, bigotry, anti-egalitarian Russians, or greed will continue to be used as justification for creating laws which violently, physically scapegoat those that stand as Others. For the right, contempt for laziness, drug addiction, and the insecure ignorance of foreign policy blowback will continue to scapegoat millions of nonviolent people into violent prisons, as well as hell on Earth in the form of war. Out of sight, out of mind.

Yet the attendance numbers don’t lie: the Church, wedded as it has been to empire, is becoming the scapegoat supreme. Unless we imitate the common unifying person of Jesus with divisive love of the Other (rather than violent cultural standoffs), then competing ideologies will pick apart the Church as an irrelevant carcass. A Christ-less Christianity creates an impotent vacuum for racial, sexual, and ethnic resentments to stew and coagulate into never-ending cycles of revenge. Blackness, conservatism, Americanism, womanhood, or social justice are inanimate, empty terms without a particular person intrinsic to their definition. As such, they build cultural movements on chaotic quicksand; the idols we make always do.

These ideologies become cold, sacrificial machines that require the blood of misfit Others to maintain their existence. As such, the Church will be violently coerced and maligned for its views and institutions as competing ideologies use the cruciform power of perceived victimhood in order to justify punishing Christians’ nonviolent speech and ‘lifestyle vices.’ All the violence of this coming cultural trend will live by the same sword that Christians—black, white, brown, and red—currently have the numbers to unite against in imitation of their common model, Jesus Christ. If only they would.

In reality, the western trend towards scapegoating the traditional Church will be a blessing; it allows us to participate more fully in the imitation of Jesus. But we still have a choice in how this test plays out: the easier way of voluntarily laying down the abusive sword of the state, or the hard way of having the swords pile up against our own necks. It’s always easier to not wait to be asked by a member of the ‘in-crowd’ if we have a Galilean accent (like Peter).

The ball is in the Church’s hands. It still has time to be the adult in the room and drop the sword. It only cuts so long as we believe in its deceitful claim that violence is true power. We must unleash the transformative power of Jesus’ culture of nonviolence by ending all laws which use theft and physical violence against nonviolent persons.

Drop the scapegoat. Set the captives free. Turn the other cheek when their behavior insults you. Wash their feet. Hold each social failing—be it adultery, drug use, greed, or high fructose corn syrup addiction—accountable through tough, tangible love, not lifeless, sterile bureaucratic laws and family-destroying incarceration.

It gets messy. Love the IRS agent; there is no space between you. Help him get a better-paying, nonviolent job where he can use his talents as you simultaneously work to peacefully abolish his agency. Make governments so small and local that you can easily contribute to charitable ‘help a brother out’ funds for those who object to (or can’t afford) the minimal tax bills. Create voluntarily-funded alternative food cards for the poor that make EBT irrelevant. And for God’s sake, let a woman share tamales from her home kitchen.

The confidence from freeing our scapegoats is contagious. It won’t be easy, but our tired old cultural standoff won’t stand.