Scapegoats, Ego, Soul and Mandorla

In the early rituals of Yom Kippur, (which the Jewish family observed last week on October 5) a goat was presented to the high priest in the holy of holies.  On the goat’s flanks were written the sins of the community – all sorts of scurrilous and cruel thoughts and actions for which the community needed to atone.  The priest then took the goat, now marked up with hateful graffiti, and threw it into the wilderness, where it would be devoured by wild beasts.  A highly symbolic liturgical action.

It was the original scapegoat.

The Jewish community has evolved from that early ritual – having identified other symbolic actions of atonement.  But the human family has not.  For centuries there has been the regular – and increasingly accepted, practice of putting people down so we can raise ourselves up.  Anthropologist and philosopher Rene Girard has indicated that the reason the human family continues to identify scapegoats is because it works.  Heaping abuse on a scapegoat reduces tension in the community – for awhile.  But then the tension and anxiety inevitably rises up again, which then prompts people to pile even more abuse on the scapegoat – or find a new one.  It is a vicious and often violent cycle, from which is hard to break free.

Especially now, as our country moves into the crescendo of the pre-election season.  The script that most candidates are expected to read from is to identify a scapegoat:  “they caused our problems; they make our lives miserable; they lie and cheat; are at fault… “let’s throw them into the electoral wilderness.

And it works – because people get worked up, fear is engaged, anger is stoked – and anxiety goes down.

Except it doesn’t.  It just leaves us with even more intense polarization, to the degree that some are saying we are approaching a civil war; while some others are saying we are already in one.

In 1962 America experienced an economically crippling steel strike.  President Kennedy and Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz expended considerable political capital trying to resolve the dispute.  An agreement was reached, but before it was signed one of the sides pulled out (I can’t remember which).  Kennedy was furious, and at a public gathering he referred to the offending side as “those sons of bitches”.  The media took notice, and chided the President for his vulgarity.  After all, this was 1962, with very different ethical expectations around the use of language.    Kennedy was mildly chagrined.  “You are right,” he is reported to have said.  “I shouldn’t have said it… but boy, did it feel good.”

We all know that impulse.  We all have engaged in it one way or another.  Putting someone down so we can lift ourselves up.

How to break the cycle?  There are several ways, but two stand out.  One is to engage in the discipline of moving from the ego to the soul.  We need the ego – it organizes our life; it gets us up in the morning and guides us through the day.  But at the same time the ego is resistant to change, averse to risk and avoids pain.  When the ego is threatened, it can lash out or seal itself off.  Our culture, particularly during election time, is massively devoted to the work of the ego. 

The soul is the place of creativity and imagination.  It is from the soul where love emerges.  It is where hope resides.  The ego can easily engage in scapegoating; whereas the soul rejects it.

All the major faith traditions have stories, practices and symbols that are designed to help move their adherents from the ego to the soul.  That said, all the major faith traditions occasionally, if not often, get caught up in the ego and seek dominance and control.

The mandorla is a symbol of this type of symbolic surrender.  An Italian word for almond, the mandorla is the shape created when two circles intersect (think Venn Diagram from 6th grade math).  It is the place of transformation.  It is the place of intersection between the ego and the soul.  Entering the mandorla requires risk.  It takes courage.  It can make a difference.

That journey – in these fraught times, is one more of us need to take.



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