A Matter of Faith began as an NJTV series in the spring of 2017. The mission of this series is to examine important topical issues of the day through a faith-based lens. More information about the program and the hosts can be viewed here.
On the weekend of August 4-5, 22 people were murdered in El Paso, nine were massacred in Dayton, and five were killed in Chicago from 47 shootings. The epidemic of gun violence has yet again both galvanized and paralyzed the nation.
"The epidemic of gun violence has yet again both galvanized and paralyzed the nation."
The galvanization comes in a deepening commitment to increased background checks for gun purchasers; an expansion of extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs laws); limitations, if not an all-out ban on assault rifles; decreased gun magazine capacity - with a variety of actions, protests and clarion calls to implement these strategies to fight bigotry and hatred in all its destructive forms; all of which carry the data based evidence that they will reduce the scourge of gun violence.
And the paralysis comes in the misguided tropes that we yet again hear from the White House, the NRA and those whose main concern is that any effort in gun violence reduction is a ploy to take away people’s guns and/or are brazen assaults on the second amendment.
These tropes fall into two categories: when the shooter is white, as was the case in El Paso and Dayton, the paralytic response is that the violence is a mental health problem. In the case of Chicago, where most of the shooters are black, the violence is identified as a criminal issue. And continuing in this overly simplistic and ultimately pernicious mindset, in order to resolve the crisis it becomes necessary to isolate the perpetrators: send them away; lock them up. In short, scapegoat them.
The tradition of the scapegoat began over 2,000 years ago when the Israelites were instructed to bring their sins to the Temple on Yom Kippur, which they did through animal sacrifice. Once gathered, the High Priest would then go into the Holy of Holies, with the community’s sins in tow, and ritually, if not metaphorically, cast them onto a goat. The ineffable name of God would be pronounced along with the words, “Praised be God’s name and kingdom forever and ever.” The goat would then cast into the desert, as the scapegoat, carrying the sins of the people; and its journey, presumably to death, relieved the community of its sins.
A fascinating and elaborate ritual for sure, but one that is troubling because it teaches that our sins can magically be taken away by virtue of a specified animal to remove what we perhaps have not done much about ourselves.
Today’s version of Yom Kippur calls upon us to understand what gets us stuck, or paralyzed, in our intransigent ways. It calls upon us to change our ways, to choose different paths on which to travel, so we don’t repeat the mistakes we have repeatedly made.
What scapegoating did, and still does, is reduce anxiety in the community. For only a short bit of time. And when the anxiety erupts again, as it inevitably does, another scapegoat is needed, and another act of dark magic is proposed. And thus, here we are, taking the idea of a scapegoat and making it exponentially worse than ever imagined by our ancestors. We are not casting our sins upon animals and sending them out to the desert, but instead upon the downtrodden, the other and blaming our woes on them. Our communal desert is filled with their blood. And magic or empty words will not do a damn thing to mitigate any of it.
It is too easy to identify the mentally ill as the source of mass shootings, and young black men as the source of urban killings, or those who are not of our race, religion, ethnic group, nationality or tribe as the reason for our unfulfilled potential. Not only is it wrong, but it puts the potential mark of a scapegoat on all mentally ill people, young black men and select people within the American plurality. And leaves the scapegoaters with an intractable case of moral and psychological paralysis.
"It is too easy to identify the mentally ill as the source of mass shootings, and young black men as the source of urban killings, or those who are not of our race, religion, ethnic group, nationality or tribe as the reason for our unfulfilled potential."
The Qur’an invites us to a higher calling: “O people! Truly we created you of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may recognize each other”. Surah Al-Huraraat 49:13. The Prophet Muhammad educates us about the reality of the oneness of God, the oneness of the human family, and how this unity is comprised of a diversity that God designed and intended to be studied, acknowledged and appreciated. In the Christian tradition, Jesus died so there would be no more scapegoats.
As men of prayer representing the three Abrahamic traditions, we support prayers, actions and words that expose scapegoating as both a vicious tactic of revenge, oppression and tyranny, and ultimately serves as an avoidance of dealing with the urgency and complexity of racism and gun violence. And we support efforts to galvanize actions and strategies that not only make our communities safer, but affirm the reality that we are one human family. If we allow ourselves to fall into a spiritual paralysis of scapegoating, all we will be left with is a desert that is no longer sand, but instead a sea of brothers’ and sisters’ blood; whose earth-shaking disturbance potentially becomes a tsunami threatening all human life.
"If we allow ourselves to fall into a spiritual paralysis of scapegoating, all we will be left with is a desert that is no longer sand, but instead a sea of brothers’ and sisters’ blood; whose earth-shaking disturbance potentially becomes a tsunami threatening all human life."
Mark Beckwith is the retired Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, NJ.
Matthew Gewirtz is the Senior Rabbi at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ.
Imam W Deen Shareef is the Imam of Masjid Waarith ud Deen in Irvington, NJ.