“’Saul, why do you persecute me?’ (Acts 22.7). This is the fundamental question. Christian conversion is our discovery that we are persecutors without knowing it. All participation in the scapegoat phenomenon is the same sin of the persecution of Christ. And all human beings commit this sin.” – Rene Girard, Evolution and Conversion (142)
We discovered the scientific method because we stopped burning witches. We stopped burning witches because, despite the slowness in understanding and stubborn choice to disregard the question at the heart of Christian conversion, the story of Jesus saving people through his refusal to return violence against his persecutors slowly undermined the millenia-old groupthink that witches, or other misfits, are the primary cause of plagues, droughts, and infant deaths.
The question “Why do you persecute me?” inspired the West to create hospitals with universal admittance, give the handicap our best seats in theaters, and wrestle with notions of restitution for past persecutions like slavery and land confiscation. It allowed us to consider treating the last as if they were first. However, our increasing awareness for the plight of those we sacrifice for the greater good can get warped and redirected into new, clever ways of sacrifice.
Humanity is like a recovering heroin addict. In ancient times, ritual sacrifice and violence against misfits was our false transcendence. It felt good and it helped us function and avoid worse demons. We slowly realized how ugly and oppressive the drug is to those around us and are now in the process of weaning off the substance. However, along the way, there are pitfalls, momentary relapses, where we do not realize we are still sneaking in a quick fix of sacrificial violence.
Any time we consent to using violence against nonviolent people to preemptively protect “the greater good” we are falling back into this fix. So how do we educate ourselves in the way of becoming aware of our complicity in persecution? How do we train ourselves to see with new eyes that those who seem to deserve to be blamed the most for our problems are, in fact, hidden scapegoats?
If you want to study how to found a remarkable company, you read Steve Jobs biographies and discuss it with fellow entrepreneurs. If you want to exercise, you go to the gym or hike with friends.
If you want to learn the story of Jesus and how to imitate him, you go to church. These gyms for Jesus imitation should unlock the meaning of “Saul, why do you persecute me?” and apply it to society. They should unpack what Jesus meant by God “desiring mercy, not sacrifice,” how he was “the stone the builders rejected,” and how we should not resist evil with violence.
With almost 400,000 churches in America and 70% of Americans claiming to be Christian, which means “Jesus imitator,” we should be able to spot the hidden scapegoats found in the specks of our eyes. But what does one get when you visit a local congregation?
By omission or commission, we get leaders using their role model platform in the name of Jesus to side with persecution. We are getting gyms with pools made of ice cream and barbells racked with donuts. For decades, church leaders have remained silent in the face of elective wars. Rather than warning their flocks to discourage their children from participating in elective wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria or aiding chaos in Yemen, Libya, or Pakistan, they have stayed silent, neutral, or even celebratory of such endeavors.
War, if it is to be done, should only be in self-defense from actual, initiated violence. Working alongside rebels and terrorists to benefit financial interests is no place for any person representing a nation of Jesus imitators.
Church leaders should denounce elective wars. They should know that a state commission, a helmet, and a uniform does not act as an exemption from the question, “Why do you persecute me?” To betray young men and women’s valor to serve for placating the state-serving status quo is a betrayal of Jesus himself. It is a slander of the Gospel.
Unjust sacrifice of soldiers’ lives and limbs is not the only form of persecution church leaders have aided. If a person goes into a house of Jesus, they should be equipped with the ethical model of Jesus in their personal and civic life. That message would challenge Christians to consider their obligation to imitate Jesus in participating in jury duty. If a nonviolent person who is not a danger to society is being put on trial, a Jesus imitator should know that they have the power to throw away the stone in their hand and render a “Not guilty” verdict as a judgment against bad law.
The Founders created jury nullification as a tool that allows people who feel powerless to effect elections to make a difference, one persecuted neighbor at a time.
If church leaders explained how laws against nonviolent, victimless behaviors actually create fatherlessness, separated families, prison assault, PTSD, generational violence, poverty, and empower gangs, society would not flock to other church-like communities based around race, gender, sexuality, or political ideology. Such “social justice” movements are motivated by anger, fear, hate, and an overriding sense of despair that victims are being oppressed. Because they create groups based on external identity conformity, they are necessarily antagonistic to outside scapegoats that are the opposite of their shared identity.
Churches can heal the cultural sickness of which identity politics is a symptom. If church leaders start speaking out with grace against elective wars here and abroad, they can heal the national body. When church leaders enter the public square to defend the individual person against collective violence and face the question, “Why do you persecute me?” we can put aside identity politics and unite the culture in imitation of Jesus.