Blood Libel and the Sacrificial Crisis

Posted: January 12, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’m really trying not to flip out every time the right wing says something this week, but Sarah Palin is not making it easy for me.

Her latest statement on the Giffords incident is, in a word, vile. Not only does Palin miss the chance to show any contrition for drawing up maps with crosshairs over the now-shot Rep. Giffords’ district (or for her and her colleagues violence-laden rhetoric), but she managed to invoke the status of a persecuted European Jew to describe the awful phenomenon of people finally holding her accountable for her words.

Just so we’re on the same page here, this is an excerpt from Palin’s statement:

If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

The phrase “blood libel” has a very dark history. It’s not a phrase that simply means “to falsely attribute responsibility for violence.” It has a very specific meaning, and it refers to the old European anti-Semitic slander that Jews kidnapped Christian children so they could eat their body parts during religious festivals like Passover. This slander led to the false prosecution of any number of Jews in cases where a murder of a child occurred, often of whole groups of Jews who were implicated in the hate-motivated conspiracy theory of the local Christians. Blood libel played a major role in the persecution of Jews in Europe over at least two centuries. Pogroms have been triggered by the blood libel.

Sarah Palin is drawing an analogy between people finally calling her out on her and her movement’s violence-laden rhetoric and the anti-Semitic hate slander that led to the killing of European Jews.

This persecution complex of the right wing astounds me. With the Supreme Court, Congress, and the White House under the control of majorities who identify themselves as Christians, with a de-facto religious test built into our politics for high elected office, with Christianity being by far the largest religion adhered to by religious Americans, the right wing puts out constant propaganda that “we have to turn America back to God” and that “Christianity is under attack.” While it’s true that Christianity is under attack in other places around the world, honestly and violently under attack, that is not the case in the United States.

What is the case in the U.S. is that we have a political movement jockeying to represent a clearly defined demographic group, in this case Christians, that make up a majority of the population (again, because that group has enormous political power, not because it’s “under attack”). What all these claims of persecution and of the need to “turn America back to God” amount to is a call that the majority be able trample the rights of the minority so the majority can live in a pure society untainted by the sin of the outsider. What the folks making this argument may or may not understand is where this kind of agitation leads: what Rene Girard identified as the “sacrificial crisis.”

In a sacrificial crisis, a society’s rituals for managing violence break down, the ritual observances’ ability to create unity losing their effect. The society begins to look for causes for the ineffectiveness and for the increasing pressure within the culture, for the “anger of God.” They inevitably focus on the contamination of “the Other,” the person or people in the group that are different than the majority, those that “pollute” an otherwise “pure” culture. As the idea solidifies that the Other is to blame, a herd mentality begins to form that directs the violence of the community in the Other’s direction. The community is once again united–in violence–as they sacrifice the Other. The unity created by the majority’s mob mentality gives the illusion that the rituals are working again, masking the fact that the unity is only the unity of the gang.

This is why it’s so essential that we continue to hold people like Sarah Palin responsible for their violent rhetoric: our country is ripe for a crisis. Our rituals aren’t working. The Prosperity Gospel is in the gutter. Millions of people participated in a mass movement to get the right wing out of office, and it we still find ourselves mired in war, unemployment and general malaise. Millions of other people just voted Republicans into office in Congress, but they’ll discover as they did in the Tom DeLay years that people who campaign to obtain political power don’t generally use it to reduce the power they have. (Just wait until they get the Presidency and Congress again, and watch.) In short, it seems like nothing is working, and each of us is becoming less secure. As the pressure builds, the tendency to identify an Other and make violence against that Other acceptable will increase.

The right wing is playing with fire, both with their violent rhetoric and with their language of persecution. Each pushes a society already sliding in the direction of a sacrificial crisis that much closer to the edge. That’s what makes Sarah Palin’s statement so appalling. Not only did she not retract her violent imagery and rhetoric, but she compounded it with the language of bloody persecution. If those who support people who use this kind of language don’t forcefully denounce it, we’re all going to get burned.

  1. My view on the matter is that it always takes two to make a fight, so that “conservatives” cannot be the sole cause or source of divisive vitriol. Is not the more fundamental problem that conflict and anger have become organizing principles of thought in today’s world. Something bad happens and immediately the only response is to look for someone to blame and hate.

    Was it not for this reason that the Lord instructs us to forgive enemies and pray for those who persecute us? So that this would become the dominant pattern of thought?

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