May 15: Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers kill two Palestinian teenagers, following a tense standoff during which protesters hurl rocks and soldiers respond with volleys of tear gas. The boys pose no immediate threat to the heavily armed Israeli soldiers. They’re an easy target. Scapegoats.
June 12: Palestinian insurgents go looking for an opportunity to vent their own pent-up thirst for violence and revenge. They kidnap and murder three Israeli teenagers. The boys are an easy target. Scapegoats.
The Israeli government quickly blames Hamas. Quietly, officials admit the murders were the work of a “lone cell.” But that won’t do. As violence escalates, so does the need for a bigger scapegoat.
July 1: The Israeli teenagers are buried. Huge crowds turn out for the funeral. Several hundred rightwing Israelis coopt what was meant to be a day of mourning. They shout for revenge, chanting, “Death to Arabs.”
July 2: A Palestinian teenager is kidnapped and burned alive by Israeli settlers hell-bent on revenge. But the scapegoating won’t end there. The thirst for vengeance is not easily sated. An eye for an eye, a life for a life… but when will it stop?
Hamas fires rockets; Israel reduces whole sections of Gaza to rubble. Well over a thousand Palestinians—the vast majority of them (75-80%) civilians—are killed in the first few weeks, along with 53 Israeli soldiers and 3 civilians in Israel.
The Israeli government thinks nothing of bombing schools, hospitals, and UN buildings. Those seeking refuge inside become scapegoats as well. We’re told their deaths are necessary (or at least an unfortunate necessity) to stop Hamas from firing their ordinances nearby. Civilians are warned to flee—no easy task in a densely populated and utterly isolated strip of land five miles wide. Then the places to which they’ve managed to flee are bombed as well.
Of course, Hamas has blood on its hands, too. They may not be capable of targeting much of anything with their rudimentary ordinances. But their intent to wage war—to unleash hell, to vent their bloodlust on innocent scapegoats—is undeniable. Hamas may not have murdered those three Israeli teenagers, but their political chief congratulated those who did.
That’s because Hamas and the Israeli government both worship the same god of violence. They offer sacrifices on the same bloodstained altar. They engage in the same endless cycle of scapegoating—justifying their violence by pointing to the violence of their enemy.
When will it stop?
In his book Farewell to Mars, Brian Zahnd sheds light on the demonic scapegoating of our enemies, which lies at the root of so much of the world’s violence—including the latest conflict between Israel and Gaza.
This extended quote from Zahnd is worth considering in light of the current situation:
A crowd under the influence of an angry, vengeful spirit is the most dangerous thing in the world. It is closely associated with the essence of what is satanic… the inclination to blame, accuse, and recriminate. (The words satan and devil both mean to accuse and blame.) When the satanic spirit of angry blame and accusation infects a crowd, a perilous phenomenon is born. The crowd abandons truth as it searches for a target upon which it can express the pent-up rage it feels… The groupthink phenomenon of mob mentality quickly overtakes rational thought and individual responsibility… The mob becomes capable of evil that would be unthinkable for most people as an individual.
The scapegoat is usually a marginalized person or a minority group that is easy to victimize. But the crowd does not admit that it has selected a weak victim as a scapegoat. The crowd must continue to practice the self-deception that the scapegoat is a real threat to “freedom” or “righteousness” or whatever the crowd is using to justify its fear-based insecurity and anger…
Sacrificing a scapegoat is highly effective in producing a sense of well-being and belonging within the crowd… It’s the blood-drenched altar of civilization. It’s the Cain model for preserving the polis. It’s collective murder as the alchemy for peace and unity. The crowd vents its violence and vengeance upon a scapegoat to protect itself from itself.
If you follow an angry crowd—even if it calls itself Christian—you are likely to be wrong… Massacres, slaughters, crusades, pogroms, genocides, and the Holocaust are what can happen when people follow an angry crowd in search of a scapegoat.
We’re called to be peacemakers, and peacemakers cannot be fearmongers. The biggest difference between a peacemaker and a fearmonger is whether or not they really believe in the unconditional love of God.
There is no easy way out of this relentless cycle of scapegoating, violence, and bloodshed. But we will never find another way if we remain imprisoned by fear, unable to imagine that God might love the very people we’ve been told to hate.
If you’re a Christian and you consider yourself pro-Israel, can you see that God loves the people of Palestine unconditionally? Does that change the moral calculus for you in any way? If not, do you really believe in the unconditional love of God—or are you merely paying lip service to the idea?
For those of us who sympathize with the Palestinians, can we see that God also loves the people of Israel unconditionally—no matter how strongly we may condemn the actions of their government? Does this influence the moral calculus for us in any way? If not, do we really believe in the unconditional love of God?
God’s love demands that we choose peace over fear. As Patriarch Bartholomew (quoted by Zahnd) once said:
Unless our actions are founded on love, rather than on fear, they will never be able to overcome fanaticism or fundamentalism… Our peacemaking ultimately stems from and relates to love for all of God’s creation.
If you follow the crowd in pursuit of a scapegoat, the violence will never end. You’ll find that you will always need another scapegoat. And another. And another. Before long, you might become someone else’s scapegoat. It is folly.
The only way to end it is to give up our need for a scapegoat.