A scapegoat is a person, group of people, or thing selected by a group with power to bear blame for a calamity or a multitude of problems. In the Torah, there are passages that speak to the offering of a "scapegoat" to atone for our sins - the goat that is pushed over the cliff on the Day of Atonement and carries away all the sins of the nation of Israel on its back.
As the global financial system has unravelled, there has been a rising chorus of people who are looking for scapegoats. Part of this is natural - we want to know who was to blame, who will be held accountable for this frightening moment in our inter-connected lives. Part of this is amplified by the news filetrs we live in - there is always more energy in a story that has a villian, in a narrative that confirms the suspicions (or paranoia) that we cling to like an old sweater.
It did not take long for people to begin blaming this mortgage crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a bill passed in 1977 that demands banks lend throughout the communities they serve. The Act bans what banks call "red lining", the practice of arbitrarily denying or limiting financial services to specific neighborhoods. The CRA required banks to offer mortgages in the entire geographic area in which they operate, not just to do business in suburbs or the affluent enclaves.
This scapegoating started on a number of racist sites, then moved to hate groups, then made its way into what many consider the "mainstream" media. FOX NEWS weighed in on this, both on their website and in countless "news" reports. ''I don't remember a clarion call that said, 'Fannie and Freddie are a disaster. Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster,''' Fox News Business anchor Neil Cavuto said on his Sept. 18 program. The National Review, founded by the late William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1955, lent credence to this scapegoating in castigating the Community Reinvestment Act. Their argument is that by encouraging FDIC-insured banks to lend to people of color in lower income neighborhoods, the government created the explosion in high interest rate subprime loans.
As John Adams, one of our most influential Presidents, once pointed out:
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of the facts and evidence
Facts are rarely satisfying when mobs are fearing for their livelihood. Facts are not always great media - they are often complex, sometimes even challenging our base assumptions or long-held prejuidices. In the heat of a crisis, when it seems like everything might be at risk, scapegoating is typically more emotionally satisfying than sitting with our fears or even looking at the facts.
So - the stubborn facts of this crisis. BusinessWeek, typically seen as strongly supporting the business establishment, reported the facts in a blog posting on their site:
Fresh off the false and politicized attack on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, today we’re hearing the know-nothings blame the subprime crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act — a 30-year-old law that was actually weakened by the Bush administration just as the worst lending wave began.
The Wilmington Business Journal reports two facts:
First, that the overwhelming majority of the over 1.5 million American households in mortgage default because of the subprime lending crisis are white, not black.
And secondly, that statistics prove that families of color who secured their home mortgages through a bank CRA program were properly qualified, and are still maintaining their payments today.
This is as old as Adam blaming Eve - passing the blame to someone else, often someone not like you.
I am a white guy, someone who knows a fair number of other white guys in the financial services industry. I would rather not see them lose their jobs, rather not see them called out for accountability, rather not see them even prosecuted for anything they may have done in violation of the laws of this country.
I would rather blame "them", those people over there who I do not know or who I have always suspected are just a bit too uppity.
Watching this angry mob - hell, being part of it myself on occassion - I hunger for voices of people with faith, people who can draw us out of fear, out of hatred, out of violence. Political leaders can not solve what is, at its core, a moral crisis. Business leaders are searching for a moral compass to help them, now more than ever, navigate their choice with a driver other than greed or supercapitalism.
Jesus applies another expression to himself that is extremely revealing. It is drawn from Psalm 118: "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." This verse tells not only of the expulsion of the single victim but of the later reversal that turns the expelled victim into the keystone of the entire community.
In a world where violence is no longer subject to ritual and is the object of strict prohibitions, anger and resentment cannot or dare not, as a rule, satisfy their appetites on whatever object directly arouses them. The kick the employee doesn't dare give his boss, he will give his dog when he returns home in the evening. Or maybe he will mistreat his wife and his children, without fully realizing that he is treating them as "scapegoats." Victims substituted for the real target are the equivalent of sacrificial victims in distant times.
This reversal that Girard speaks of is not seen as the key to success in the win at any costs world we live in. Rather than actually sacrifice something ourselves, we hunger for someone to sacrifice for this great pain we feel.
Now, more than any point in my adult life, there is vacuum of leadership - will people of faith stand up, speak to the scapegoating, the violence, the greed ? Will we slow down and care for those in pain, those likely to pass that pain to those around them ? Will we be brave enough to speak truth to the Empire that we have depended on for so much of our "success" ?