On Guilt and Scapegoating

Image by anetaivanova

Image by anetaivanova

Over the weekend I read an intriguing article that brought insight to something I've been thinking about recently--the purpose and influence of guilt on Christians and society at large, particularly Western society (I think it's important to state that the ways in which our culture experiences and views guilt is quite different than many Eastern, honor-based cultures). I'd like to unpack a bit of this article below, but it's worth reading it in its entirety here

I recently heard someone say people shouldn't feel guilty--that guilt was a bad thing, and that people shouldn't feel bad about things. I'm sure he had certain things in mind when he said it, the kind of things perhaps he felt guilty about growing up that he now believes weren't bad or deserving of bad feelings. But I have no doubt that if he unpacked the whole thing he would say there are plenty of things about which people should feel guilt. Just maybe not the ones he grew up with.

Wilfred M. McClay, the author of the article linked above and a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, proposes that we're living in a paradoxical state in which our society's experience of guilt has grown and spread even while we have rejected the traditional methods of speaking about and dealing with that guilt. We reject the traditional Judeo-Christian language about guilt and atonement, and even the idea of forgiveness has come to be seen as something that is about the forgiver as much as, if not more than, the forgivee. Forgiveness is about me doing something good for me--not letting you have power over me--rather than me extending grace and love. 

But our rejection of this language and the means of dealing with guilt has not eliminated guilt itself. Instead, we cast guilt upon others and feel it in ourselves in increasing measure. Voltaire wrote, "Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do," and we are more aware than ever of all the good we should be doing around the world. We feel guilt for not caring enough about each new tragedy that fills our newsfeeds. We should care more, do more, know more, help more. 

So what do we do with this guilt? McClay proposes that the only people immune to guilt are victims, so we increasingly adopt victimhood as a means of dealing with guilt.

With moral responsibility comes inevitable moral guilt, for reasons already explained. So if one wishes to be accounted innocent, one must find a way to make the claim that one cannot be held morally responsible. This is precisely what the status of victimhood accomplishes. When one is a certifiable victim, one is released from moral responsibility, since a victim is someone who is, by definition, not responsible for his condition, but can point to another who is responsible.

But victimhood at its most potent promises not only release from responsibility, but an ability to displace that responsibility onto others. As a victim, one can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor, and in projecting that guilt lift it from his own shoulders. The result is an astonishing reversal, in which the designated victimizer plays the role of the scapegoat, upon whose head the sin comes to rest, and who pays the price for it. By contrast, in appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, the victimized can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence. It is no wonder that this has become so common a gambit in our time, so effectively does it deal with the problem of guilt—at least individually, and in the short run, though at the price of social pathologies in the larger society that will likely prove unsustainable.

McClay goes on to discuss the detriment this poses to our society, and the ways in which we need to rethink our confidence that God is dead and religious ideas have no role in our culture. But I want to talk a bit about this idea of scapegoating and victimhood, and our persistent feelings of guilt.

I have two young children. They are, like all children (and all of humanity), experts at victimhood. If I walk into the room and find them arguing, I am instantly met with two voices claiming they are the victim in the matter. One stole a toy, but it was theirs to begin with. The other hit, but it was because the first one stole. If we dig deep enough, they might just blame me for buying the toys for them in the first place. 

"The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree and I ate." (Gen. 3:12)

We are expert victims, and this is nothing new. From the first sin by the first humans, we've been casting ourselves as victims in order to avoid moral responsibility and the accompanying feelings of guilt. But it doesn't work. Adam and Eve hid, knowing instantly that they were deeply guilty. They cast blame on others--even on God. But nothing could take the guilt away.

All our attempts at assuaging our own guilt by placing it on others will never fully take away the guilt. I can blame my grumbling or anger on a family member, but that doesn't take the guilt away. I can try to justify myself, but the guilt lingers until I deal with it.

But as a society we have done away with the means of dealing with our guilt. We assume guilt is inherently evil--we are inherently good and shouldn't feel bad about anything (unless you voted for that person or take that political view or do/don't vaccinate your children). But guilt is an indication that things aren't just fine and an invitation to do something about it.

"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)

The idea of scapegoating is nothing new. It was actually God's idea, seen in Leviticus 16 in His instructions to His people for observing the Day of Atonement. They were to take two goats--one for a sacrifice, and one upon which the priest would symbolically place all the sins of the people before sending it away to bear all their iniquities upon itself and take them away. Of course the goats didn't cleanse the people or take their sin away--they were a symbol of the One who would eventually come and do that. Both goats pointed to Jesus, who both sacrificed himself, paying the penalty for the sins of the world, and took the sins away. 

In Christ we are invited to cast our sin upon another. But not on our neighbor, spouse, or political opponent. That will never effectively deal with our guilt. Instead, our guilt invites us to lay it at the cross where it has already been payed for. We're not meant to live in guilt--we're meant to see it as beckoning us to confession and grace. God's forgiveness was not about Him preserving His health by not bearing a grudge against us. It was costly, extravagant love toward undeserving sinners at the cost of His Son's life. 

All of this has convicted me to speak this truth into modern discourse. I think there's a harmful way of doing this in which our answer to every injustice is, "Well it's still better than we deserve." Yes, sin has broken us and we deserve punishment, but for the grace of God. But we also have inherent value and dignity based on our being made in His image. We should never tell a victim that he or she got what was deserved. There is real sin and injustice in the world, and we must speak grace and love to those situations. Much injustice has been defended by the idea that it's better than what victims deserve. We should stand with victims and relentlessly call abusers to justice. So please understand that this is not the context to which I'm primarily speaking. 

I'm speaking more to our reluctance to feel guilt, and our inadequate response to the guilt we can't avoid. Our neighbors and friends need to see that we are quick to feel sorrow in admitting our sin, and quick to experience the joy of forgiveness available only at the cross. When we relentlessly defend ourselves or make excuses, placing blame on others for our actions, we deny that we need grace and miss an opportunity to display to the world around us the forgiveness and hope available in Christ.

I'll end with this. I love the word "bliss" in this verse from my favorite hymn:

My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought,

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, oh my soul. 

My immediate response to guilt is not a reminder of the bliss spoken of here. Instead, it's blame-shifting. But I'm praying God would help me view my guilt not as something to deny, nor as something to dwell in, but instead as an invitation to His love and grace, over and over again.