A scapegoat is someone who is blamed for all the faults of society, thus, needs to be sacrificed to save the same society from further harm. In the Old Testament, the Jewish chief priest chooses a goat which symbolically takes upon oneself the sins of the people (Lev. 16), and sends it to the desert never to return. This religious act is a sign of atonement for one’s sins and a prayer to restore peace among God’s people.
The philosopher Rene Girard transposes this ritual act on goats to persons in society. He thinks that when society has become so violent, it has the tendency to project this violence into a single individual or a group of people. Thus, the formerly warring tribes unite and together persecute the specified enemy. This communal ritual of violence on the scapegoat is supposed to regenerate social peace. Girard argues that this psychosocial process should be unconscious to be effective. And the scapegoat should never be an “innocent scapegoat”. It should be someone who is monstrously different – or is made so – so as to be considered as the culprit of our present difficulties, thus, should be eliminated.
John the Baptist was different. He did not dress and eat like the rest. He looked like an “addict”. He did not speak like the rest. He spoke truth to power. He was a threatening voice crying in the desert, asking people to change their lives, to straighten their paths, to level their roads, to smoothen their ways.
For those who hold authority, these are not abstract words. They strike at the heart of the structures that support their power. That is why Herod later on had him imprisoned and killed. John became Herod’s scapegoat. Yet his voice persisted in many different voices in our midst – voices of the victims that spoke truth to power – so much so that when Herod heard about Jesus, he was wondering in fear how John whom he killed came back to life.
Today’s gospel begins with powerful men and their reign – Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate the governor of Judea, Herod the tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip of Iturea and Trachonitis, Lysanias of Abilene, the high priest Annas and Caiaphas. But the word of God did not come to them. “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert,” today’s Gospel says. God sides with the scapegoats in the desert. God reveals Godself in them.
In the Philippines today, Duterte has manufactured several scapegoats too many to count: the drug addict and small-time drug pusher; all his critics – from Senator Leila Delima to Bishop Ambo David; from Rappler to the Communist party and the Catholic church; from the lumad to the tambays; and the latest, Dole and Jollibee :). The list is endless. Like all scapegoating processes, his propaganda machine vilified them to make them appear inhuman, immoral, rebellious, reactionary but also to make the process unconscious and normal. “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth,” Goebbels the propagandist of Hitler says.
Like all scapegoats, their names were maligned and destroyed; they were imprisoned and silenced, killed or thrown to the sea. Duterte thinks that by silencing them and “sending them to the desert”, he can impose order in society. Many still believe so, 80% of us. Many told me to do so: “Tumulong na lang kasi kayo; huwag nang mag-criticize.” The truth is this: Duterte’s acts of scapegoating only reveals the opposite: the violence of his rule. And violence begets violence.
The plunderers are having their day. Most are acquitted; others who are found guilty are never apprehended. They are all out of prison and running in the next elections. The big drug syndicates have never been charged and captured. Some were even photographed sitting on the Presidential chair in Malacanang.
But the word of God did not come to them. Outside the halls of power that grab the headlines, God reveals his Word to the surviving EJK families who try to silently make their homes livable again this Christmas; to the struggling lumads who continue to guard their ancestral domain from the inroads of powerful capitalists out to destroy their land; to the simple family trying to make both ends meet so that their children can continually live and study; to the ordinary farmer or fisherfolk, the driver or the teacher, the factory worker or the ordinary employee, who are merely trying to survive by doing faithfully their everyday labor. In them resides God’s hope.
I was sitting at a table with friends in a wedding reception today. Discussing all these, we all felt that we are in a very hopeless situation. When we read the news, we seemingly find ourselves in a dead end. But when I came back to my room and read the Gospel to prepare for today’s Mass, I told myself, it was to someone at the margins like John – Herod’s scapegoat – that God’s hope was shown.
This is in fact the message of the whole Gospel: it is among the insignificant people that the Messiah came. To the poor shepherds who kept watch the whole night or to a young couple called Mary and Joseph who had no place at the inn; it was to them that Jesus was born.
Soon, God will visit his people. Soon!
Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, C.M.
St Vincent SchoolofTheology – Adamson University