Savi Hensman

Resisting the urge to scapegoat

By Savi Hensman
April 3, 2009

Attempts to justify the hardening of Nigeria’s already harsh anti-gay laws have been strongly resisted by human rights campaigners both locally and internationally. The reasons being used to try to justify the Same Gender Marriage (Prohibition) Bill, under which anyone who attended their son’s or daughter’s partnership ceremony or even rented a room to a same-sex couple could be jailed, may seem odd.

For instance, one of the most vocal champions of the Bill is Archbishop Peter Akinola. According to him, "As with every other thing in human development, globalization has both good and bad sides… individualism is one of the marks of secularization and post-modernism… Same sex marriage is out to foist on the world a false sense of the family which will bring disastrous consequences to mankind."

Indeed, he argues, same-sex marriage will "endanger human existence" and "is capable of engendering moral and social holocaust in this country".

In trying to link lesbians and gays with the ill-effects of globalisation, he seeks to blame them for social trends over which they have no more control than any other Nigerian, thus projecting genuine anxieties on to a convenient scapegoat.

Scapegoating is common to many societies. Though Archbishop Akinola’s stance is at odds with the mainstream position of the Anglican Communion to which he belongs, which favours human rights for all, churches have done their share of scapegoating over the years. Sociologist and theologian René Girard has suggested that societies torn apart by rivalry tend to seek out a sacrificial victim, who becomes the focus of violent impulses and whose destruction temporarily unites people once again.

For those caught up in a surge of violence towards a particular target, it can be difficult to think clearly and feel empathy. Christ offers a way out of this destructive pattern: by revealing the innocence of the victim sacrificed for all, he offers humankind a chance to recognise the humanity of those who would otherwise be scapegoated, though it takes time for this awareness to take hold.

In the West, Holy Week has, sadly, often been a time when anti-Semitism has risen, sometimes to murderous levels. Today, in many countries, other scapegoats are sought. When people feel that change is happening which is beyond their control and competition is fierce, a target is found who temporarily brings together people who would otherwise be struggling against one another, so creating an illusion of community and peace. This may be symbolic, as in gladiatorial-type televised contests. But the threat of violence can be real and may leave minorities isolated and frightened.

In Britain today, there are a range of people who are often portrayed by the media and politicians as a threat to 'Britishness' – Muslims, recent migrants, ‘scroungers’ on welfare benefits and so forth. Far-Right parties tap into this sentiment and mainstream politicians may vie with one another to join in and prove that their party is not ‘soft’ on those who supposedly undermine the fabric of the nation. The current economic crisis increases the risk of a rise in extremism.

Ironically, this targeting of vulnerable groups can undermine the very values which are supposedly defended. Important national traditions such as regard for civil liberties, and a literary heritage which combines compassion with insightful social comment, are set aside when minorities are unjustly blamed and victimised.

Churches, other faith communities and people of goodwill can play an important role in countering this tendency to victimise, in part by refusing to be used in defence of a supposedly Christian national identity based on suspicion of ‘the other’.

It can also be helpful to share what is known of the human tendency to seek scapegoats and to deny the full humanity of others – something widely discussed by theologians and philosophers but often not mentioned in congregations and everyday conversation.

If people understand these impulses, they are less likely to be swept away by them. Close attention on the part of religious leaders and thinkers to the work of historians and social scientists (even if the results are not always comfortable) would also be helpful.

In Christian belief, being truly attentive to the One who is present in the needy and marginalised (Matthew chapter 25) and who was willing to be sacrificed in order to set others free from destructive patterns of victimising or being victimised, is necessary to achieve fullness of life. Beyond familiar cycles of scapegoating and death lies the hope of an empty tomb.


One of the major theological expositors and opponents of 'the scapegoat mechanism' is Rene Girard, the anthropologist and literary critic. His work can be purchased through Ekklesia here:


© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the recent book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.