Homily for Sunday 19th of January

In a challenging article this weekend, the Melbourne academic, John Carroll, suggests that the “new snobbery is not over bad taste, crude accents, cheap belongings and the wrong schools; it is over attitude.” In a lengthy opinion piece, Carroll addresses the religion of our time: identity politics. In the past this was hardly a concern; most were busy with survival – “concern about identity was a leisure-time luxury [people] could ill afford.” Carroll proposes that the new basis of identity is “I emote, therefore I am.” In other words, what I feel is who I am. But because this is based on such a transitory dimension of who we are in our totality, we see emerging an incredible crave for approval of that identity one has claimed for oneself. Social media, particularly, becomes the platform to broadcast one’s felt identity and to attract approval for it. “Addiction to social media brings with it a feverish restlessness of concentration and, it seems, a dependency on approval,” Carroll observes. “The logic of this type of depressive narcissism finds its main reward in the tick of approval. The thumbs-up or love heart is inflated in the imagination as recognition for the lonely self . . . At the same time, self-esteem has become so fragile, the ego so lacking in confidence, that the mere whisper of a dissident view pricks the emoting bubble.” As Carroll suggests, “At the pathological extreme, this kind of brittle self-esteem links with an inability to handle criticism.” Even major institutions and corporations “have taken to emoting virtuously. In part this has been to cover up the fact they have excluded while they have embraced. The mission statements of corporations, universities and sporting bodies proudly boast of inclusiveness, tolerance and diversity. But the more they do so, the more they have practiced discrimination, intolerance and politically correct conformism.” The result “has meant angry opinion, which used to be limited to berating this or that political figure at the pub or golf club, may be broadcast instantly and worldwide. It provides the mouthpiece for a global cacophony of hatred, malicious gossip, derision and persecution of those who are different, and coercive opinion containing the implicit threat: agree with me or else.” This is because disagreement with what I feel is a threat to my very identity, to who I am.

We might live in a post-religious society, Carroll concludes, but the outcome of all this is in fact an “onslaught from the worst excesses of religion: the tyranny of righteous opinion, fanatical preaching and persecution of heresy.” And in all of this, scapegoating has re-emerged with a vengeance. If someone disagrees with how we feel, they must be outed and they must be punished, condemned in the vilest of ways, marginalised to the point of obliteration. Nothing must come between me and how I feel.

We see this capacity even in in the face of the environmental catastrophe we face with the bushfires which have ravaged our land, our wildlife and our people. We need someone to blame. We need someone to be the scapegoat. The fact that as a people we, ourselves, have failed to act for change over this last decade and allowed the situation to go largely unaddressed politically can fail our attention. What have we done, personally, to bring about a new relationship with our landscape over these years so as to limit the possibilities of climate change? It is far easier for us now to blame others when we experience the outcome of our own inaction and failure of responsibility.

‘Scapegoating’ is the tendency of a group that might be assailed with problems to shift blame onto someone else – be they an individual or a whole group of people. Scapegoating is an easy way out for a group: the group does not have to embark on the more difficult task of assuming responsibility for its difficulties and change. It is never easy for a group to change: a group would rather die than change and most usually do. And so, someone else is forced to wear the group’s guilt and is sacrificed accordingly. They become, as we say, ‘the sacrificial lamb’ in the matter. Better for one person ‘to be thrown to the wolves,’ as the expression has it, than let the matter affect more. Ordinarily, this person scapegoated may not actually be the worst offender in the matter. That is also of the nature of scapegoating: there is an inherent injustice about its use - an innocent party can be made to be responsible for the group’s woes.

Scapegoating has its origin in the ancient custom of ritually casting the community’s sins on a goat or lamb and sending the animal out into the wilderness to die. As the goat or lamb, ritually carrying the people’s burdens, perished so was the community released from the burden of its guilt. The animal was a sacrifice of atonement. We no longer have the ritual custom, but we retain the need - the question of how can we be released from our burden of guilt and sin? Who will release us from our burden of guilt?

Guilt is an ordinary human emotion. It is the feeling we have in response to the knowledge of a wrong committed. Often the message that we are fed, though, is that any sense of guilt is a bad thing. Constructive guilt, however, is a sign of maturity and the fruit of a developed conscience; it becomes the basis from which we repair any damage that we bring about particularly in the lives of others, and in the world more generally. We do wrong, or we damage our relationships, or we act to the detriment of our environment. Our guilt motivates us to repair and redress. We grow through the process. This is the collective responsibility we all bear in the aftermath of this summer.

But there is also another more difficult guilt with which we are burdened that is not as easy to redress. Sometimes redress is not possible, particularly in the failure of relationships, and our guilt lingers with us and takes permanent residence with us. What of the guilt we carry if we have unintentionally hurt someone in a car accident, for example, and that person faces years of difficulty henceforth? And then there is the issue of social guilt, of the guilt of history. We know that we are part of systems and contribute to the maintenance of systems that damage or have damaged others.

Unless guilt, whether it be personal or social, is addressed and processed its energy begins to eat away at us. It begins to destroy us. It builds into a self-loathing, a self–hate, a great self-doubt. How can we be delivered from this guilt about which we might be powerless to redress? The question clarifies itself even further, “what or who can save us from the destructive side of guilt?” Thus, we come to the word of Jesus to us today which cries out to us: No need to scapegoat others for this guilt you cannot address. I will be your sacrificial lamb. I will take your guilt upon myself. I will bear it. I will atone for it. And why? So that you may be free, unburdened, to work for better relationships, a better world, a better way of living. I will assume the burden of your guilt so that you may create again and renew your life again. Yes, you can begin again. I give you a new beginning.

Jesus is the Lamb of God. Someone has taken on themselves the burden of our guilt. Someone has transformed the self-hate of our guilt into a humility which has the power to make new beginnings in life. Someone has transformed the self-doubt of our guilt into a confidence to start again. We have this humility and this confidence because the entire story and pattern of Jesus’ life assures a picture much bigger than our own effort and our own mistakes. To declare Jesus as the Lamb of God, as the scapegoat who voluntarily takes away our destructive guilt, is not a justification for laziness or a carefree attitude to the mistakes of our life. It is rather a reason to never lose hope about starting again, making new beginnings. In Jesus, our guilt is transformed into a new freedom. We are broken free from the tombs of our own despair. We can rebuild and learn to live a new way.

And is that not our hope as this summer in Australia continues to unfold?

[1] John Carroll, “Status Anxiety and the Tyranny of Opinion – proclaiming your own shallow virtue from the pulpit of social media has become the new religion.” The Australian, Inquirer, 17 January 2020.