Book Burning and the Scapegoating of Islam

Last week the nation (and much of the world) watched Terry Jones, pastor of a minuscule Florida congregation, threaten to burn copies of the Qur’an on September 11, then abruptly change his mind only to have notorious hater Fred Phelps jump into the gap.

But while much of the media attention to this story has actually revolved around, well, the media attention itself, this is a good time to ask ourselves what it means, historically and symbolically, to burn a holy book. And what do our responses mean?

The Sacrificial Scapegoat

In the West, book burning has come to symbolize the totalitarian rejection of free expression—a desire to enforce conformity of thought. While there is no doubt that something like this is going on with Terry Jones and his church (not to mention Phelps), there is another symbolic meaning that is more ancient and, I suspect, more instructive.

I have in mind the symbolism of making burnt offerings to supernatural powers.

Rene Girard is a philosopher who is perhaps best known for an intriguing theory about the religious practice of sacrifice. Social life, for Girard, inevitably inspires violent impulses. But social life also requires that these impulses be suppressed. The solution is to direct those impulses toward a scapegoat—a victim, chosen on the basis of accessibility, who becomes the target of the society’s violence, thereby enabling the social harmony to be preserved.

This violent scapegoating for the sake of social harmony is the origin, for Girard, of religious rituals of sacrifice. But for this to work the sacrificial victim cannot be acknowledged to be a scapegoat, but must be seen simply as the real source of the community’s problems. The scapegoat is chosen on the basis of difference, as well as vulnerability. This difference can be portrayed as an offense against God—by offending God (through intolerable beliefs or behavior), the victim has put the entire community in danger. The community must show its solidarity with God by refusing to tolerate the victim’s deviance.

And so Jews are blamed for the bubonic plague and slaughtered; or gays are taken to be a threat to the American family and systematically marginalized; or the West is dubbed the Great Satan and the Twin Towers (and those inside) are sacrificed in an inferno.

Or, in the present case, Muslims are blamed for everything that is wrong with world—and, in lieu of burning alive actual human beings, the Muslim holy book is cast to the flames.

So, What About the Crucifixion?

Some, such as Christopher Hitchens, would see such sacrificial scapegoating as a natural extension of Christian theology—which, after all, has at its heart the doctrine of the vicarious atonement, which Hitchens finds an appalling extension of the idea that wrongs can be righted by sacrificing an innocent scapegoat to God.

But the crucifixion, like book burning, is a complex symbol. And at least one theologian—S. Mark Heim—has taken up Girardian themes to argue that the crucifixion is best understood as a potent repudiation of sacrificial scapegoating. In Saved From Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, Heim points out that the crucifixion, while a story of sacrificial scapegoating, deliberately exposes the scapegoat for what he is: an innocent. More significantly, the crucifixion gives to the victim the very voice of God:

The passion narratives tell the old story of redemptive violence, but tell it entirely from the point of view of the sacrificed one. Even more dramatically, they tell the story of redemptive violence as a sinful human construct for peacemaking, not a divine institution. God is not the author of the process, but the one crushed by it.

This dramatic reversal of the sacramentalized practice of channeling violence onto a scapegoat—this divine repudiation of the deliberate sacrifice of vulnerable victims (who, if not innocent, are at least innocent of the specific crimes for which they are blamed)—is, according to Heim, one of the essential meanings of the crucifixion. In the face of that message the early church sought to forge community without the use of sacrificial scapegoating—using, among other things, a ritual meal of bread and wine “that they believed powerful enough to do what violent scapegoating had hitherto done in human history.” Heim goes on:

They celebrated not their unanimity against a victim, but their identification with the crucified one, and so with all those placed in a similar position. They remembered that at this death Jesus’ disciples had played the roles of betrayer, deserter, and denier. Therefore they faced a reminder that they too were not free of the sin that leads to the cross, and were in need of conversion.

We Are All Betrayer, Deserter, Denier

If Heim is right about this, then Jones and Phelps and their respective congregations are symbolically enacting the very thing that the passion stories central to Christianity were intended to repudiate. Where they are called to see the crucified Christ in those who are being symbolically burned at the stake, they instead see a righteous sacrifice to God. Where they are called to identify with the victim of sacrificial scapegoating, they become the practitioners.

For those like me who see in the crucifixion what Heim sees, the response to proposed Qur’an burning can only be one of horror and outrage. But if we respond to their ritualized violence by doing nothing but self-righteously condemning them, by treating them as this small group of crazies who are causing trouble, we are in danger of turning them into our scapegoats. The failure of Christians to repudiate sacrificial scapegoating is not a new problem, nor is it an isolated one. And the problem of Islamophobia is not limited to a small congregation of 50 in Gainesville, Florida.

In fact, if we think about Jones’ move to suspend the Qur’an burning as part of a supposed deal to relocate Park51, it seems natural to view it as an effort to trade in one expression of Islamophobia for another—more precisely, as an effort to align his church with the expression of Islamophobia that, unlike his proposed book-burning, has gained widespread public support. “Look,” he seems to be saying. “We’re one of you.”

And then there is the fact that the nation has, through extensive media attention, conferred on this tiny congregation an enormous power it otherwise wouldn’t have—a power to make their symbolic violence do more actual harm than it otherwise might have done, to make their vicarious scapegoating less vicarious, and so to more effectively reach their intended targets.

It is true, of course, that there is something important about calling attention to injustices, and this needs to be balanced against concerns that this attention empowers the perpetrators of injustice. But the problem is that, as a nation, we are not wrestling with such difficult balancing acts. The media rushes to the next dramatic spectacle because to do so will attract ratings. And why does it attract ratings? A congregation of 50 can hardly be blamed for that.

All of us in our own ways play the roles of betrayer, deserter, and denier. And while we should not condone the Dove Center’s desire to burn Muslims in effigy—nor should we fail to repudiate it when it becomes a public spectacle—it is important that our response not re-enact on another symbolic level the very pattern of sacrificial scapegoating that we repudiate.