Liquid Modernity, Scapegoating, and The Cross

Written by Matt Shedden : January 18, 2008

stones.jpgIn Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, a commonplace American town gathers together to draw scraps of paper from an old black box. Jackson curiously keeps the reader from determining the meaning of the lottery, the only hint being a pile of rocks that had been organized. The story goes through the narration of each person picking until at last it is decided that Tessie Hutchinson has received the sheet marked with the black dot. It is then that the town, and most notably the children, surround her and she is stoned to death.

In Zygmunt Bauman’s book Liquid Modernity, he discusses the result of the current times in which the solid state of modernity has become “liquefied.” Noting that “fluids travel easily”, he dissects how the five basic concepts upon which “the orthodox narratives of human condition tend to be wrapped… emancipation, individuality, time/space, work, and community” and are changed by this process of being “liquefied.” Each theme builds upon the other as he writes, but in the final section on community he explains what he later calls, “the explosive community.”

It is here Bauman interjects the story of communal violence that comes from the work of Rene Girard. Girard, a literary critic who has studied just about every topic, offers an explanation of communal violence that holds the gospel as its possible solution. Girard argues that from the earliest times human have been drawn between a struggle of “imitation and rivalry.” If I have a house, my natural response is to convince people that mine is the best, thus forcing admiration that leads to a fight. Communities have to avoid this and maintain a measure of peace through, as Girard argues, scapegoating.

As theologian William Placher paraphrases:

Just as mutual conflict reaches the brink of chaos, we avoid crisis by ganging up on certain individuals, blaming all the problems on them, and killing them or driving them out of the community. Suddenly the opposition of everyone against everyone is replaced by the opposition of all against one.

Thus in the image of Leviticus 16, Aaron lays his hands upon goat for their sins and sends it into the wilderness, Germany turns on the Jews, and Pat Robertson detests the Homosexuals. As Bauman states, “What unites the numerous forms of ritualistic sacrifice is its purpose of keeping alive the memory of the communal unity and its precariousness.” So in Shirley Jackson’s short story awareness of the innocence of the scapegoat is not a factor, the Lottery is what unifies the community and provides itself with a narrative of how the community is maintained. The role of the children being involved is perhaps one of the most shocking parts of the story, but people are less likely to recognize the innocence of the random person, because from a young age they already have the blood of many victims upon their hands.

Bauman, however correctly notes that the explosive community is by “no means necessary and certainly not universal.” He thinks that in this time of ‘liquid modernity’ we more likely to see a kind of “cloakroom” or “carnival” community. In both of these models he doesn’t explicitly state the role of violence, but mentions that “spectacles have come to replace the ‘common cause’ of the heavy/solid/hardware modernity era–which makes a lot of difference to the nature of new style identities and goes a long way towards making sense of the emotional tensions and aggression-generating traumas which from time to time accompany their pursuit.” His examples of such spectacles are the “cloakroom” of a play, the carnivals of which we temporarily escape into some other reality, and the adoration of television news under which we “gather and march (virtual) shoulder to (virtual) shoulder.” In his conclusion of this section he remarks that while these types of communities (which Girard would argue all communities are) lack the “genuine” and are just “symptoms and casual factors of the social disorder specific to liquid modernity condition.”

Yet one must take issue with the reality of Bauman’s conclusion and the fact that during his application of these theories the word violence is hardly mentioned, and the word “moral” makes a brief appearance. If his conclusion of ‘carnival and cloakroom communities’ is correct he makes a large mistake in not exploring the practical implications that plays out in virtual culture. Malcolm Muggeridge once stated that, “If God is dead, somebody is going to have to take his place. It will be megalomania or erotomania, the drive for power or the drive for pleasure, the clenched fist or the phallus, Hitler or Hugh Heffner.” Separating the notion of God being dead (for now) this statement is a radical indictment of our reality-television, celebrity-obsessed, pornographically-driven, violent culture. While many men would like to think of the woman who is a stripper as a woman who has just found a profitable way to pay for college (as many movies attempt to state) the reality of situation is usually much more dire. And in the virtual culture many people are letting off this violent scapegoating streak into realities that don’t exist. Whether it be the videogame Grand Theft Auto, or the nightly news, violence is still the key to the system. We trick ourselves into even believing the reality TV contestants are not innocent, because they merely chose to be in this position. Thus we have our enjoyment at their expense, it is merely “a moral”. Even his simple example of the ‘Nightly News’ that unities us fails to take into account that someone must be dying (whether through murder or war), being exposed for struggling as a parent (see Britney Spears recent debacle), or being the object of a sex scandal (Bill Clinton and numerous Senators) for the average member of society to receive his/her unity with others. We truly are forced to choose between as Muggeridge stated above, “Hitler or Hugh Heffner.”

Yet the victims of this virtual world are innocent, and Bauman errors in just taking this as a casual factor. Even recent research and study suggests even if people are taking these forms of violence simply through their eyes, it is very likely that the objectification of another (whether through a strip club or video game) allows them to see others as less than human in their daily experience. The violence is not contained to the virtual world, but spills over into reality in the form of rape, murder, violence, and adultery. Although Bauman is unwilling to admit it, we still live under the shadow of ‘scapegoating’.

However, we didn’t finish our Girardian analysis above. Girard goes on to assert that it is in the biblical text we find a God who proclaims the victims of ‘scapegoating’ innocent. The height of this analysis comes in the shape of a cross, in which the scapegoat, is not merely proclaimed innocent, but righteous and resurrected. In light of this we as the Christian community cannot continue in the societal impulse to crucify the innocent, but as Christ did we must take our place with those who are suffering and being abused as the result of this fallen humanity (Philippians 2). But the church cannot ignore the powerful uniting ability these spectacles have for the uniting of people. Our answer to such a spectacle must be our worship, in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” and certainly no scapegoat. And the highlight of this event which we hold in the place of the spectacle must be the Eucharistic table, in which we remember the death of the truly innocent, Jesus Christ, who was taken, broken, and crucified, to proclaim all scapegoats innocent, and set forth a community of people who recognize this new reality and will no longer participate in the violent system of the world.

Author Bio:: Matt Shedden is seminary student at Mars Hill Graduate School, and his inspired by Anabaptist values. He blogs at about life, theology, and culture.

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Viewing 5 Comments

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    great post. my parents got me liquid modernity for christmas and now i pumped to read it.
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    Liquid modernity? Sounds sticky...does it stain?
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    More thought was put into this post than anything I think I've ever come up with on my own blog. Well said Matt!

    Do you enjoy Mars Hill? I looked into that school awhile back but ended up going elsewhere for a variety of reasons.
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    I'd choose Hugh Hefner.

    Now, seriously, this post was really awesome and interesting. I have never realised this what Muggeridge said, but is a good picture of our reality.

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    I'm an admirer of Girard and his mimetic theory, but there are some ways in which it rubs against my read of Scripture. Nevertheless, I find his understanding of the cycle of scapegoating to be a very helpful lens through which to examine our faith and our society.

    Has anyone ever read "People of The Lie" by M. Scott Peck? The end of it explores the way in which our society creates scapegoats. For example, we send soldiers off to war to do our dirty work and then blame them for what they do in order to get the job done. Our society thrives on scapegoating.


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