Scapegoating, Part Two

On this week’s podcast, as we continue our series about scapegoating, Dan Allender invites us to reflect on the particular experience of being the one who is scapegoated. The dynamics might be familiar to many of you: You are a crucial part of a group or system, but then you are set up to be vilified and ostracized. (Those dynamics are also crucially connected to the realities of spiritual abuse and the challenges of leadership.) After bearing the brunt of the system’s chaos and dis-ease, you are sent out into the wilderness to be consumed.

Dan: “It’s when we know that we’re needed by some person, some group. We’re seen as valuable and crucial or important to a family, to a relationship, to an institution, and yet we’re not enjoyed. We’re not truly allowed to be broken, to be beautiful, to be human. When you feel the bind that you are absolutely crucial, but at some level your humanity and your presence does not bear honor and delight, I can promise you that’s a context for a scapegoating process.”

Another component of being scapegoated is that the other person or group establishes a narrative about who you are, without any room for you to alter that view. A common example of this is when families continually tell certain stories about someone, even many years later. It might be a funny or charming story, but it often carries a twist of shame and the realization that the family views you in a very particular way, and there is nothing you can do to change it. And over the years, dynamics will emerge that replicate the same structure again and again, forcing you to play the role that is expected of you, ultimately becoming a caricature of yourself—or pay the consequences.

Dan: “You’re going to feel like you’re suffocating, like there is no way for you to be known or for you to know, for you to be cared for and enjoyed. There is that sense of a life force being slowly crushed. You can’t really be replenished, and you’re expected to be the same person that’s always been that person everybody knows.”

As an attempt to reduce shame and increase control, scapegoating might occur after a sudden event, when something falls apart or doesn’t go as planned, or it might emerge more gradually, as styles of relating intersect in a way that makes one person the focus of the system’s heartache and chaos. Dan identifies three broad categories to reflect the diversity of reasons why a particular person might be the “chosen one.” The first category is in the realm of the prophet—the one who sees things that others refuse to see, and is willing to name difficult truths. In an effort to maintain the status quo and silence disruption, the prophet is then vilified as a scapegoat.

Dan: “That power to see and speak, I would call the prophetic presence. And the prophet is often chosen as the scapegoat by those who want the story to be good—those are false priests—or want the structure to not be challenged—those are bad kings and queens.”

Another category of scapegoat is based not on doing or saying the wrong thing, but on who you are. If you are perceived to embody some kind of weakness or frailty, the system might scapegoat you to avoid having to confront their own weakness or frailty. (In that sense, the scapegoated person is once again a prophetic truth-teller, because their brokenness reveals the brokenness of others.) On the other hand, if you are seen as being too beautiful, too gifted, or too good, you might then be set up for envy, and scapegoating emerges as the system’s attempt to destroy that which it can’t have.

Dan: “So if the honest are seen as too sensitive, and we blame as being liars, and the weak as being dependent, crippled, unable to perform, to be true valuable beings in the universe, they expose our own frailty—in many ways, our own body shame and contempt. And the beautiful obviously expose that we do not feel like we bear the same level of life.”

A final category of people who might become scapegoats are those who are marginalized, who exist as minorities in a majority setting based on their race, gender, orientation, or any of the structures of identity that might be used to establish someone as “the other.” Dan acknowledges that, while this is difficult and complicated to talk about as a white man, it is also a vital conversation. If we continue to ignore the ways that we have individually and institutionally appropriated others’ beauty or identities in an effort to minimize dissent, maintain control, or consume what we envy, then we will never truly address the rage, shame, and fear that are raging in our own hearts.

“It’s not only those who are broken who end up being scapegoated, but also those who bear immense gifts and beauty.

If we can begin to address our own perpetuation and our own victimization, then we have at least something of a framework for thinking about how we address the process of no longer scapegoating and no longer being scapegoated.”