Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Art of Scapegoating

I'm sure all my readers will at least think they are familiar with the art of scapegoating.

It happens in companies.  When something goes wrong, and the company accidentally kills someone or loses lots of money, there are usually multiple system failures that lead up to the problem.  However, as often as not someone will get the blame, and the sack.  This will usually not be the CEO or the Board of Directors, even if it was actually their fault.  It will usually be someone more junior - a person with enough authority to be plausibly blamed for the problem, but not enough power within the company to protect themselves.  They take the blame for everyone else and are ceremoniously banished as a way of removing the stain from the company as a whole.

Countries and the regimes that govern them tend to do the same.  Regimes that are corrupt, or oppressive, or govern in the interests of a small minority, find themselves the target of their people's anger.  They work hard to deflect this anger onto someone else - most often an unpopular minority.  The more corrupt or dictatorial the regime, the harder it will work to whip up anger against its chosen scapegoat.  Nero used the Christians to deflect anger over the fire that destroyed large parts of Rome.  The Nazis used the Jews to unite the rest of the nation behind their corrupt and violent regime.  The military dictators of Myanmar stir up hatred against the Rohingya, then use the resulting unrest as an excuse to delay further democratization.

We shouldn't think that we in Australia, with our strong democratic tradition, are above this sort of behaviour either.  Asylum seekers are talked up as a threat and used to divert attention from a range of unpopular domestic decisions.  Here in Queensland the previous government used outlaw motorcycle gangs as their scapegoat, whipping up a law and order campaign to turn attention away from a serious of unpopular and possibly corrupt pieces of legislation.  The tactic is so widespread, so entrenched in human government, that we often fail to notice it.

The trouble is, we keep doing it wrong.

The original idea of the scapegoat comes from the Hebrew scriptures, in Leviticus 16.  There we read that once a year, on the tenth day of the seventh month, the Israelites were to celebrate the Feast of Atonement.  This ritual included the sacrifice of a number of animals.

Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats – one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.

The bull and the goat chosen "for the Lord" were to be sacrificed at the altar - the bull to atone for the High Priest's own sins, the goat for the sins of the people, using a detailed ritual designed to protect the High Priest in the most holy part of the sanctuary which he would only visit on this day.  After this he would deal with the scapegoat.

When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

Now I know that my readers are at all points along the spectrum from devout believers to militant atheists.  Still I think we can all agree that the Levitical process is a definite improvement on the Nazi/Myanmar/Abbot approach to scapegoating.

First of all, their scapegoat is a goat.  No people are harmed in this process.  Instead, the mistakes and failings of the Israelites are symbolically taken out on a small number on animals.  Many of us will feel a certain amount of sympathy for the animals involved.  After all, what have they done wrong?  However, you should bear in mind that if these animals were not sacrificed at the altar they would simply be butchered elsewhere.  In fact while the bull and the Lord's goat suffer a messy death, the scapegoat gets a surprising reprieve.  It is turned loose in the wilderness.  Anyone who has traveled in outback Australia will know that goats can survive pretty much anywhere.  As soon as the goat was out of sight it would turn to foraging for whatever scrubby plants it could find and be happily feral for the term of its natural life.

Secondly, neither the sins of the leaders, nor those of the people, are swept under the carpet.  Before he does anything else the High Priest has to sacrifice a bull to atone for his own sins.  The whole nation is watching as he publicly admits to his own failings and does something about them.  He is forbidden from attempting to keep up the illusion that he is without fault.

But so is everyone else.  A goat is killed for the sins of the whole nation.  Then the other goat is symbolically asked to take on board, and to carry away, these sins.  They are publicly confessed.  Was this a "general confession" like churches do now, or did they get down to specifics?  We are not told, but nonetheless the nation's failings are admitted and symbolically transferred onto the goat.  They are then sent out with it into the desert.

They don't disappear altogether.  The goat lives on, presumably carrying its heavy burden of sin as it goes.  I doubt that it cares.  But the sins are removed from sight.  The Israelites are given a chance to make a new beginning, to confess and repent of what has gone before and to start over again, trying to do better in the coming year.  They won't get it right, the ritual will need to be repeated next year.  But it is out in the open, the need to do better is acknowledged by everyone from the High Priest to the lowest farmhand.

It is so simple and transparent, and yet we continue to get it wrong.  We and our leaders refuse to own up to our own failings and instead seek someone else to blame for them.  We try to create the illusion that we are perfect, that we have nothing to be ashamed of.

Not only that, but we persistently refuse to take the route God offers us and substitute something less than human for the human victims of our rage and hubris.  Abraham was commanded, at the last moment, to swap his son for a ram, but we refuse.  We keep the ram - because it is profitable and will breed us many more sheep - and sacrifice our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters instead.

So next time you hear complaints about scapegoating, remember that the problem is not that we are scapegoating but that we are failing to scapegoat.  We have lost the skill of scapegoating.  The result of our loss is a world filled with pain.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

New Refinements of Cruelty

I'm sorely tempted to not write about asylum seekers.  I really don't want to.  It's too awful.  But my conscience compels me.  It seems like every time I write an article about this, the story is worse than the last one.

The last time I wrote, our government was complaining that while the Human Rights Commission was criticising them for holding children in detention and the United Nations was highlighting their failure to respect the human rights of asylum seekers in general, no-one was was giving them credit for the amazing human rights achievement of preventing people from drowning at sea.  Mind you, they have never presented a scrap of evidence that they have done this.  They have prevented boatloads of people from arriving in Australia by intercepting them on the way here and sending them back, but there is no evidence that I have seen about where they end up.

Now we are seeing just how hollow this claim is.  It is becoming clear that something like 8,000 asylum seekers are currently at sea around South-East Asia in leaky boats.  Most of them are Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh.  Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar in particular for years - many settled in Australia before our government turned hostile, but many more simply crossed the border into Thailand where they live in camps supported by international aid agencies.  Others have made their way further south to Malaysia where they are officially illegal immigrants but in practice are tolerated and able to work in the grey economy.

They have plenty of reasons to flee.  The government of Myanmar has been pursuing a slow but consistent program of genocide.  It officially denies they exist, even going to the extent of refusing to attend international forums where they are discussed by name.  It claims instead that they are simply Bengalis from neighbouring Bangladesh, from which it says they have entered the country illegally and to which it says they should return.  However, they are also persecuted in Bangladesh where they are a minority ethnic group.  Meanwhile, most of those still in Myanmar (around 800,000) have been driven from their homes and are living in 'displacement camps' where they rely on charitable donations of food (often stolen by Burmese officials) and are subject to further violence and harassment by the military and extremist Burmese nationalists.

Recently, the Thai government has increased surveillance on its border with Myanmar, preventing refugees from crossing there.  In any case, the Thai border is on the other side of Myanmar to Rakhine state and the Rohingya have to cross unfriendly country to get there.  This means that the safest and quickest avenue of escape is by boat, departing from Myanmar's western coastline and seeking landfall in a safer place.

There are two problems.  The first is that their boats are not seaworthy.  The second is that the governments of the three countries whose waters they enter as they pass down the coast (Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia) are determined to prevent them from landing.  Thai officials will hurry them along the coast towards Malaysia.   Malaysian officials will give them food, water and directions to Indonesia.  Indonesian officials will do the same and send them back again.  Their boats are not fit to head into the open ocean in an attempt to reach India (and in any case, no-one on board has the navigational skill to get them there) and there is little point any more in attempting the marginally less dangerous crossing to Australia.

The result is that something like 8,000 of them are floating aimlessly around, some for as long as four months, begging asylum from one country after another.  If their boats were arranged by people smugglers their 'official' crew have long since jumped ship and gone home.  In the meantime they suffer dehydration and malnutrition.  They turn on one another in desperation and there is violence and murder.  Some try to swim for shore and drown in the process.

This is what "stopping the boats" means.  I dare Mr Abbott to claim it as a stunning human rights achievement now!

He hasn't gone that far, but he still seems a long way from growing a conscience.  The ABC reports the following.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he supported regional countries taking action to stop people smuggling boats by turning them around and stood by the Australian Government doing the same.

"I don't apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary and if other countries choose to do that, frankly, that is almost certainly absolutely necessary."

What else can he say?  He can hardly ask other countries to do what he is not prepared for us to do, and show some basic human decency.  He can hardly say "nothing is worth the suffering these people are enduring, we just have to do better".  He can only stand by and applaud as our neighbours pull ahead of us in the race to the bottom.  Soon, though, he will have to further ramp up Australia's level of deterrence as even permanent detention on Manus Island starts to look better than the other alternatives on offer.

Of course there are other alternatives.  The most obvious and simple is to admit that the whole project is a cruel farce, and agree to accept these people in wealthy, comfortable Australia where 8,000 desperate refugees would merge into the existing population without a trace and within a few years become productive, valued members of our communities.

Upping the degree of difficulty a little, we could work to solve the problem at its source by changing the terms of our engagement with Myanmar.  Over the last couple of years, Australia and other countries in the region have increasingly embraced Myanmar in response to its military junta taking a few baby steps towards democracy.  No matter that these baby steps did not include either relaxing the military's hold on power, or stopping the genocide of Rohingya which has, if anything, got worse.  Of course this is tricky - an invasion would cause untold suffering, and even sanctions would mostly hurt the poorest people in the community while leaving the rulers untouched.  But surely we can do better than turning  blind eye, which is what we are doing right now.

Meantime, there is one bright note in all this horror.  After a boat containing something like 700 Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers was turned around by both Malaysian and Indonesian navies during a journey that seems to have lasted at least two months, they were finally rescued and brought ashore by poor Acehnese fishermen and brought to their village of Kuala Cangkoi in North Aceh .  Many of them had died before the rescue, fighting had broken out between the two groups, all of the passengers were weak and dehydrated and some had suffered from meningitis.  The military and officials may have been able to ignore this terrible suffering, but the fisherman reached out in common humanity.  They did so at some risk to themselves, since bringing them ashore could be seen as facilitating illegal immigration.

Once they were ashore it was impossible to send them back, and they are safe for the present.  What the future holds is anyone's guess but I think the fishermen of Kuala Cangkoi have pointed the way for us.  If they can see that it is just not right to leave people to starve aboard leaky boats then surely the rest of us can too.  If ordinary citizens can act with common humanity, surely our governments can follow suit.

We can always hope.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Noble Sacrifice

I've been thinking about human sacrifice lately.  A lot.  It's not a pleasant subject, but there seems to be a lot of it going around so it's hard to not talk about it, especially with the the Anzac centenary celebrations still ringing in my ears.  On the day after Anzac Day we even had the subject mentioned from our church pulpit.  It was a long time since I had felt so let down by my church.

It was the Australian poet Les Murray who first made me aware of the place of human sacrifice in Australian religious attitudes.  His essay, 'Some Religious Stuff I Know About Australia', was published in 1982 in a book called The Shape of Belief: Christianity in Australia Today although I probably first read it some years later.  Here's what he had to say.

Since the spiritual dimension universally exists in human beings, it has to be dealt with by them in some way or other; a sacramentally-minded Christian would say that it has to be fed.  It can be wrongly fed, though, with dreadful results for the world....  An example of what I mean would be human sacrifice.

Wait on! Human sacrifice?  Surely that's an archaic horror that survives only very marginally in a few Third World groups that anthropologists write about?  Surely the holocausts of this century in what we call 'our' civilisation can only be called human sacrifices in a very metaphorical sort of way?  Surely there's a distinction to be made here between the literal and the metaphorical?

My answer is, there may be, but I don't know of one watertight enough to prevent the blood from seeping through it.  When I hear someone say, as I did yet again the other day, that this country needs a war to restore and cement its sense of community, I recognise that as a call to literal human sacrifice, to be performed for one of the classic archaic reasons.  When I am told that thousands of Australian men died in the First World War so as to prove their country's worth to the world and make it 'come of age', I don't know whether that was in fact their motive (I strongly doubt it), but I see the assertion as one which makes their death into a post-facto human sacrifice, and accepts it as such.  

And this despite not only the Enlightenment we used to praise as our deliverance from such archaic nonsenses, but also despite the much earlier action of Christ in consciously taking the whole deeply ancient human motif of sacrifice on Himself and as it were completing and sealing it, so that henceforth we might refer the whole complex impulse to His action and never again enact it literally on a human victim....

With the decline of traditional Christian observance, things formerly bound have a way of being loosed again on mankind....

This idea has stayed with me through the years and if anything has grown stronger as time has passed.  I think about it every Anzac Day.  People who otherwise believe they are not religious attend dawn services and daylight commemorations.  Thousands even make the pilgrimage to the site of the original sacrifice.  These events are highly liturgical - the 'Last Post' is played, a high status male (usually a dignitary from the RSL) recites part of Laurence Binyon's 'Ode', someone may give a short homily, there will be a minute's silence.  They are not explicitly honouring any god, but they are honouring the young men who sacrificed their lives "for us" or "for our freedom".  The ceremonies are engaging and moving.  It is hard not to weep.

I think of it whenever I pass Anzac Square in Brisbane's central city and see the plaque which is headed "For God, King and Empire".  Which god, I want to know, aligned him or her self with the King and Empire of Britain and demanded the deaths of these young people?  Why would we worship such a monstrous god?

The thing is that we don't notice the deeply religious nature of these sacrifices because we have screened the subject out of our lives.  Even devout Christians fail to notice that when you celebrate a sacrifice you are celebrating a religious act.  A sacrifice is an offering you make to a god.  It involves taking a living thing and killing it in a very public, ritualistic way in order to appease that god or buy his or her favour.

Human sacrifice is a big subject.  I keep meaning to write about it, but hesitate because I feel unequal to the task.  It is so serious, so complex, and I feel unqualified to perform it.  But no-one else is either.  Yet despite our collective silence human sacrifice pervades the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.  It pervades our history, and its dark presence is with us every day.  Millions of lives are sacrificed across the globe each year to the god of progress, the god of prosperity, the idol of Western culture.  They may not look like the sort of gods that the ancients sacrificed to, but the results are the same.  Vulnerable people die - children, foreigners, the poor - and the gods are indeed appeased and continue to bless their worshipers, at least for a time.

The thing is, should we continue to accept this sacrifice passively?  It is hard to give it up, because these gods are not phantoms, they are very real.  If we stop sacrificing to them, they may well turn on us.  Their wrath will not be pleasant.  On the other hand, they are fickle, and they are not as powerful as we believe them to be.  Ultimately they will let us down no matter what we do.  Can we escape their clutches, or will we in our turn be sacrificed before the end?

These are not pretty thoughts.  They may seem cryptic to many of you, but to explain them will take some time.  I suspect I will need to sit down at my desk for extended periods writing about it and thinking it through, rather than shooting from the lip like I usually do.  In the meantime, bear with me, and when you hear someone using the word 'sacrifice' listen closely and ask yourself, 'What is being sacrificed here, and to which god?'