Remarks delivered at the Witness for Peace footwashing ceremony at the gates of Aero Contractors earlier today.
Every year, all over the world, millions of Christians spend six intense weeks thinking about the meaning of life. The weeks fall just prior to Easter. We call them Lent. You may have heard the stories of folks using up all the fun food in their pantries, things like lard, sugar, and flour on the eve of Lent. You may have eaten those pancakes at a Shrove Tuesday meal back on March 5th this year.
The truth is, it’s good to clear the pantry of distracting food and clear our lives of distracting activity before Lent starts. This frees our hearts, souls, and minds to focus on the meaning of life.
- What does my life mean?
- How shall I live my life?
- How does my living inhibit or contribute to the lives of others?
Inevitably, when asking these kinds of deep questions, we will uncover some ignoble answers. We’ve all done things we ought not to have done; we’ve all left undone things we ought to have done. Throughout Lent we intentionally name those occasions more readily than we ordinarily do at other times of the year. The rhythm of the Christian year is set up to give us this soul cleaning, truth-telling opportunity. Sometimes we make amends when appropriate and possible. Hopefully, we pledge to live better going forward.
The churchy way to put this is confession, repentance, restitution. This morning I only want to focus on the first part—confession. Confession is hard and I’ll tell you why. It’s hard because we have grown accustomed to deflecting blame, reassigning mistakes, and avoiding responsibility.
Friends, this is a real problem. It’s not new. It’s probably as old as sentient humans. When asked: “Who did this?” the patented response is, “Not me.” And not just among children. We all flee responsibility for mishaps, never mind owning up to real damaging behavior. It’s our natural inclination to deflect blame.
Long, long ago in a land far, far away—Ancient Mesopotamia, land of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—folks used to deflect blame by offering up a scapegoat. Ritually, the people would heap their sins upon the goat, though not always a goat, sometimes sheep or cattle, maybe only birds, and then the goat was consumed by fire. With the smoke rising to the skies people believed God would be appeased by the sacrifice of something with real value. Meat, otherwise meant for our tables. Once the smoke cleared, we could go back to business as usual.
The prophet Amos tried to disabuse us of this misdirected reasoning by relaying God’s sentiment: “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings…” God asks for justice instead of burnt offerings; righteousness instead of ritual.
Seems we are slow learners. Blaming other people is the modern day equivalent of scapegoat sacrifice. In some instances, we still use the word “scapegoat” to describe the one being blamed. Few realize that the word ties back to a real event, the sacrifice of an innocent life, a misdirection of justice. Sometimes we say things like:
- Poor people are poor because they don’t work hard. Truth is they’re slogging away in an economic system that is skewed toward the rich, where money makes money on top of money for those who have money. But it’s easier to scapegoat the poor than reform capitalism.
- People live in bad neighborhoods because they can’t afford to move. Truth is our government, banks, and realtors redlined them for years out of good neighborhoods. But it’s easier to scapegoat the neighbors than admit they were robbed of the opportunity to accumulate wealth.
- People are tortured because we need information from them. Truth is torture doesn’t produce information, at least not reliable information. Truth is we need someone to blame for the helplessness we still feel about September 11, 2001. We need scapegoats.
We’ve gathered here today to tell the truth about North Carolina’s role in the torture programs allowed by our government. We’ve come here to confess, to admit that when our government behaves this way, we the people are complicit in the act.
The truth we must name is hard to hear. Torture has happened; hundreds have been harmed physically and psychologically. Torture contradicts the values on which our country was founded. Torture disparages people of faith who claim all humans are created in the image of God. All humans, even those who may have done things they ought not to have done.
The ancient ritual of our faith is a way out of this malaise of blaming others and making scapegoats. We can confess. Using the means Christians have used for centuries to discover the meaning of life: Tell the truth, make amends, live better.
Here’s the thing about confession. It is hard for all the reasons I named earlier. But it is also liberating. It frees us from the burden of being right all the time. It frees us from the fear that someone will find out we were wrong because we simply admit that we were wrong. It frees from the need for a scapegoat.
This deranged scapegoat system will be taken to its extreme on this first day of the Triduum, Maundy Thursday, Holy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper, the ritual of foot washing. Today it starts, the betrayal, the arrest, the trial, the death of Jesus, the Messiah. Vindicated by God through the resurrection, he was nevertheless the victim of a miscarriage of justice. A scapegoat.
With the truth, the torture can stop. We do not need to blame others. We do not need a scapegoat. May it be ever so. Amen.