Monsters and Scapegoats: A Reflection on Otherness, Grief, and the Failure of Imagination

posted by Lauren Plummer

Christ of Maryknoll, by Robert Lentz

This summer I read Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality by social psychologist, professor, and ad hoc theologian, Richard Beck. The book is great, and I’m tempted to rehash it page by page here, but, alas! the summaries and reviews (like this one) have already been sufficiently written. In short, Beck devotes an entire book to going and learning what Jesus means in Matthew 9:13 when he tells the Pharisees, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Beck explores our impulse as human bodies and as members of the body of Christ to prioritize rituals, purity laws, and exclusion over practicing compassion and embrace. Beck walks us through the physical, social, and spiritual origins and implications of the psychology of disgust. He asks us to consider what compels us to exclude the Other and how we can cultivate what Miroslav Volf refers to as a “will to embrace” – holding radical inclusion in tension with whatever it means to be holy and set apart. Tons of fascinating stuff here; go forth and read the book in its entirety for yourself.

In Part 3 of the book, Beck considers Jesus’ call for mercy instead of sacrifice in terms of hospitality towards the Other, and eventually calls into question our psychological and societal need to create monsters and scapegoats out of other people and groups. He explains that our moral faculties begin to take shape before we are even cognizant and go on to affect us in ways we are often not aware of. Our sociomoral disgust around ideas of “otherness” begins forming as soon as we enter the world; as infants we begin to differentiate between our family/kin (our kind) and “non-kin.” This begins with our biological families and expands to include other friends as we grow. After we identify our kind or who is in our “moral circle,” we instinctively show warmth, love, and kind-ness. “Otherness” is lost within the moral circle because we accept kin as an extension of ourselves.

But what about everyone else? Beck uses an example of restaurant waitstaff to illustrate his point. Say you have a friend with a new job as a waitress, so on her first night waiting tables you gather a group of your friends to eat at her restaurant, planning to celebrate her new job and leave a hefty tip as encouragement. Once you are all seated the waitress friend comes to your table frazzled because the restaurant is especially busy, everything is new, and she has several tables of demanding customers. Do you demand excellent service and extra attention? Of course not. You order simply, tell her she’s doing great, and then leave a big tip anyway. How does this scenario work out differently when you show up at a busy restaurant with a waitress you’ve never met? What’s the difference? The first waitress was a friend – someone included in your moral circle, thus someone you treat with warmth and equal humanity. The second waitress is a stranger; we don’t know what she hopes for, what she goes home to, or any of the ways she is like us, so we’re comfortable with seeing her pragmatically – as the facilitator of our meal. We treat strangers, anyone outside of our moral circle, as means used to accomplish our goals in the world. Beck points out that this practice unfortunately supports Claude Levi-Strauss’ assertion that “Humankind ceases at the border of the tribe.”

Beck goes on to explain that in times of great societal fear and stress we tighten the moral circle and look with a more critical or suspicious eye at all the others outside our circle, needing a common monster or enemy to be unified against. We begin by believing an Other is lacking in some defining human quality (maybe intellectually or emotionally) and is thus inferior. Then we create in our minds essential differences between the groups that allow us to keep them separate – a frame of infrahumanization – which opens the doors for the practice of dehumanizing these Others, whittling them down into scapegoats and monsters, convenient recipients of our frustration and rage.

It’s all too easy to name examples of infrahumanized groups, but one in particular has been close to my heart for the past 6 months and likely the reason I keep coming back to this chapter of Unclean. In late February and again in May, I was fortunate enough to listen to Kathy Kelly speak. She is a co-founder of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and has been leading peacemaking efforts in the Middle East since 1990. She shared a lot of facts and analysis, but most importantly for me, she told stories. She told about people and families she knows (and in many cases did know before their lives were taken by violence) – people she can name and see and touch, who are made of the same things I am made of, and who are living lives as real and as important as mine. Listening to her I realized that I can rattle off stats about cost, casualties, and policies, but I have no real sense of connection to the actual humans whose lives begin and end in that war zone everyday.

By Robert Shetterly

Kelly told the stories we don’t hear in the news – because our perceptions of these Others are carefully filtered, packaged and delivered to us for consumption by systems and powers that honor profit over human life. The news media inundates us with stories and images depicting our political enemies as lesser forms of humanity until our collective subconscious and vocabulary slip into infrahumanizing these Others, effectively making them monsters. Who does this benefit? We celebrate un-manned drones that allow US armed forces to drop bombs on “suspicious activity” from the safety of a desk in Nevada, but in 2012 military suicides have skyrocketed to an average of 1 active duty soldier and 18 veterans per day. We use phrases like “freedom,” “national security,” or “necessary evil,” but destroying whole villages, families, and children does not make anyone free or secure, and this evil is only ever evil; carrying it out is making us sick – to the point of suicide. Perhaps our humanity dies a little every time we steal it from Others.

But our knowing this will not save children or end wars.

We can’t expect justice or peace to come out of the State unless we are cultivating it and being transformed within ourselves first. What are we doing to resist the way our understanding of kinship is shaped? Are we taking responsibility to do the work of un-learning within ourselves? Before we can love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, we need to re-learn the humanity of our neighbors. Much of my thinking on this throughout the summer has been framed by a quote from a dear author, Margaret Atwood, who writes:

“Oppression involves a failure of the imagination: the failure to imagine the full humanity of other human beings.”

If we do not incite our imagination to extend kinship to the Other in Kabul or Islamabad, where else will we find images that reinforce our shared humanity? If we are socially and to some degree biologically predisposed to see the Others of the world as somehow separate, it seems that the work of honoring the full humanity of others will come down to our willingness and ability to imagine it first.

I’ve been trying to build this into my consciousness over the last 3 months. Some of it is trivial enough that it’s awkward to admit to the whole internet, but it starts with practices as simple as eating my cereal in the morning and wondering what might be going on in the lives of Afghan families as they gather at the same time for their evening meal. Or maybe as I fill my tank with gasoline, I take a moment to consider how it may have come to me or the human cost involved in my driving around town. (And then I regret using language of “cost” to talk about human lives.)

But I also try to carve out a more intentional thinking space each week. I prefer to sit in the dark at the foot of my bed and light a candle. For a while I am very quiet. Then I begin to create a landscape in my mind – scrub trees, mud houses, everything the color of sand. I think of stories I have heard or read from Kelly and others; I call to mind the names of real people and I try to see a family I don’t know laughing around their dinner table, or going to the market, or saying bedtime prayers with their children. I try to fill them in with gifts and vices – let them be great at telling jokes or quick to lose their temper in an argument. I try to imagine what they pray for, feel them longing for peace, and see them worrying when there isn’t enough money or enough food. And while I am nestled safely in the comfort of my bedroom, I try to fathom the fear that must be ever present because during the day Taliban soldiers knock on their doors demanding food and shelter, and at night US bombs fall from the sky. I think of people who are precious to me, and I imagine them being senselessly blown up, gunned down, or starving slowly. I think of children I would die for and then try to feel what it would be like, what it is like, for parents to watch their children get mutilated or killed by our remote controlled bombs or slowly waste away because war has ravaged their land and economy. They are gutted by pain, and I am complicit.

I can no longer not be moved by this. Sometimes I come up with words to pray, but usually this meditation – this being present – is the truest kind of prayer I know how to offer. I wish I could say that all of my sitting in the dark and thinking about people had resulted in fewer of those people dying or living miserably everyday. The truth is that it wrecks me sometimes. Whenever I read about the latest airstrike, my chest tightens. I spend a lot more time feeling sad, (doesn’t this make you want to go out and try it for yourself?), but I’m taking it as a gift. Beloved priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan once said that peacemaking begins with grief, and I am growing more comfortable with grief.

But this is such a small gesture. I don’t mean to give a naive “we should all work on being nicer to each other” kind of answer for the problems of violence and war. Nothing about this is simple or tidy. But this convergence of imagination and grief could be a starting place for the inner work of consciousness shifting and re-humanizing those groups we’ve deemed monsters. What would it mean if we could collectively grieve for murdered children in Afghanistan the same way we would grieve for our own children?

And let us not be limited to distant places or people we’ve never met; there are so many Others closer to home who deserve our sensitivity and grief. I want to cry physical tears for gay teens and military veterans who are killing themselves in record numbers everyday. I need to see the spark of the divine living in brothers and sisters who engage in vicious battles over “liberal” and “conservative,” and I need my imagination to be engaged in such a way that I can see the deep brokenness that ravages the tyrants and war-makers themselves. I can’t help but believe that unpacking my misconceptions and refusing to accept the images put before me liberates me from notions that my life is somehow more sacred because of language, privilege, or faith and liberates me from the grip of powers that create fear and feed Death itself.

So what now will we do? Friends, let us nurture our impulse for mercy. Let us cultivate vibrant imaginations that can unfurl webs of infinite tendrils across oceans, beliefs, and cultures to connect all humankind. Let us stretch the borders of our tribe and re-humanize anyone mistaken for an enemy; let strangers and Others become brothers and sisters in our human family, all welcomed as Christ. When our practice of kinship grows to include all these very human beings and our will to embrace extends to surround and grieve for even the most unknown or unlovable, maybe then we will be able to embody transformative peacemaking and finally see in our systems of oppression, injustice, and greed the real monsters we should have been fighting all along.

Let it be so.

Below are some of the stories and other resources that have sparked my imagination. Blessings on the journey.

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