There’s an ancient image of the scapegoat that comes from this week’s reading. Two goats are selected: one is sacrificed, the other cast into the wilderness bearing everyone’s sins.
While you might prefer your odds in the desert to the certainty of the blade, it’s considered an honor to be offered up, and a sign of shame to symbolically bear everyone’s evil doings. It also contains the infamous passage of Leviticus 18 so regularly cited by fundamentalists decrying “deviance,” though it also includes prohibitions against many things that are commonplace in contemporary life.
It’s so tempting to point fingers. To create an ”other,” a person or group on whom to project the feelings and traits we’re uncomfortable carrying around ourselves. Folks to aim at and talk about. Them not Us.
I had a troublesome employee once. Her mood was a seemingly permanent state of truculence and wheel-dragging. Her big tell was that she always said you instead of we. The rest of us were all other to her.
It’s hard to imagine snuggling up to the them’s once we’ve laden them with all our sins. Much easier to ship them out and far away to be sure our paths don’t cross.
A custom in the Middle Ages was to load the town’s outcasts (perceived deviants, mentally ill, and heretics) onto boats, and ship them down the river. That’s where the phrase “ship of fools” comes from. It’s also the title of Katherine Anne Porter’s book about a boatload of people fleeing Germany in 1939, adrift in the Atlantic as WWII erupts.
The scapegoats, the unwanted, the goats who escaped with only their skins and what they could carry. My own grand-parents were on such a boat. Two hours into Brazilian waters, or they would’ve been turned back to the charnel house of Europe.
I find it interesting that this reading comes so close to Passover, when the Jews themselves go into the wilderness. Perhaps liberated from Egypt more than thrust out of it. But still entering a dry, relentless place. One where you cannot hide who you are or what you do behind your possessions or social status. A place where every night you are cheek and jowl by your neighbors and their tents. Seeing their sins and having your own seen by them.
We don’t really see the folks we brand as Other. We lump them together in an amalgam of stereotypes (for example: greedy, anti-ecological Republicans; menacing, black men; raucous, irresponsible youth). And once we’ve slapped a label on someone, it’s pretty easy to focus on all they ways they are different from us. They are well on the way to becoming our goat.
But what if we had to look at the them in us? If we had to acknowledge that we too are capable of every form of sin? That our love is someone else’s deviance. And our piety is someone else’s blasphemy.
We might become a little more tolerant and understanding, and a whole lot more compassionate. Not casting folks as other or them is a good first step. If you want a bigger jump start towards a more compassionate world, practice saying we when you talk about anyone else and see how it feels.