Communal Atonement: ancient rituals in modern injustices
The essayist Joseph Roach writes extensively on his observations regarding “Eurocentrists call memory (‘what’s done is done’) [and this] incites emotions that turn toward the future in aspiration no less than dread (‘God’s will be done’). The choreography of catastrophic closure” (Echoes in the Bone, pg.33).* Roach builds on this very abstract idea by bridging it to the specific literary work of Rene Girard’s, In Violence and the Sacred, published in 1972. From Girard’s research this term has been coined: “the monstrous double”. What is this? A communal rite whereas, “ ‘the sacrificial victim must be neither divisive nor trivial neither fully part of the community for fully outside of it; rather, he or she must be distanced by a special identity that specialized isolation while simultaneously allowing a plausible surrogation for a member of the community’ ” (Roach quoting Girand,pg.40).
Indeed, both Roach and Girard examine the rituals of ancient people groups with particular attention of the actual decided action to make a person a scapegoat. Dictionary.com defines scapegoat at this:
a person or group made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place. This term epitomizes the outer figure and actual practice of “violence is the performance of waste” (Roach, pg,41). A quick check on Britanica.com presents articles on how chronologically the Hebrew, then Grecian and Roman, and then the accounts of the Christian Gospels, practiced scapegoating. First in the Torah as law for the Hebrews, acted out not on a human being, but on livestock, thus the term “goat”. Then practiced in various rituals for specifics needs in a community with the Greeks and Roman, but not always to the point of death. Finally, a graphic demonstration of capital punishment upon Christ as atonement for humanity. Drawing on this, Roach interjects there must be the presence of three, concrete, observable, results of these ancient practices and philosophies to constitute that a type of scapegoat (noun) or scapegoating (verb) is being carried out indirectly in modern times. They are as followed:
“First, that violence is never senseless but always meaningful, because violence in human culture always serves one way or the other, to a make a point. Second, that all violence is excessive, because to be fully demonstrative, to its point, it must spend things-material, objects, blood, environments in acts of Batalillan ‘unproductive expenditure’. Third, that all violence is performative, for the reason that it must have an audience even if the audience is only the victim, even if the audience is only God” (Roach,pg,41)
Roach’s three deductions seem to bear out in modern times in the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, and the response of the U.S. Federal Government to not take suitable steps to prevent it, and non-reacting to the hurricane’s destruction on both citizens and property. In particular, as pertaining to citizens and property residing in the New Orleanian lower-ninth ward. The United States does have a history of using its technology and money and federal power to safeguard vulnerable communities from severe weather catastrophes. In Kathryn Miles’s book, Superstorm, she notes that in 1970 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was formed under President Nixon. In his speech outlying the need to streamline weather technology and marry it with government strength he said this, “We face immediate and compelling needs for a better protection of life and property from natural hazards…which will enable us more effective to monitor and predicts its actions” (Miles,pg.22 ). Therefore, a three-decade precedent of federal policy had existed by the time of Hurricane Katrina.
In Act III of Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke documentary a New Orleans resident makes this statement, “This was a work of humans, not God”. Another statement in the same act, this time a British engineer when referring to the levees erected around the city as “the biggest failure of civil engineering in U.S. history”. Lastly this, “Listen, this a very wealthy country. And in wealthy countries we always find the money. It is a matter of priorities”. The three persons interviewed by Spike Lee and quotes above are a collection of testimonials of one thing: the federal government did not do what it promised in building the levees to protect the most vulnerable people and property of New Orleans. And so, the question must be asked: why did our very wealthy nation of vast means and technology not protect its vulnerable citizens? To help us think about one proposed answer let’s look at the evidence argument number one, of what constitutes as a scapegoat, according to Joseph Roach. “Violence is never senseless, but always meaningful…to make a point”. First we must understand that willful neglect is a form of violence. The laws in our country imprison parents who cause harm to their children through neglect. So, if negligence is violence, then, according to Roach’s definition, it was meaningful, or better stated, calculated loss.
Roach’s evidence argument number two points out scapegoating “violence is excessive…it must spend things in acts of unproductive expenditure”. The excessive non-reacting, non-aide, non-compensation in the wake of Katrina in New Orleans points to excessiveness in loss of human life and property and environment. It was fully demonstrative towards basically, the unwanted and the have-nots. A simpler way to say “unproductive expenditure”. Why were the people of the lower ninth ward considered this? That is very complex and multi-layered answer that this paper could not do justice. What I can do is simply give an excerpt from a favorite book and teacher. The book is titled, Radical: Taking our Faith Back from the American Dream. The author is David Platt. The scene is set of a young Pastor being invited to a home of another well-respected Pastor with several of the church’s deacons present and the young pastor, David Platt, is asked to speak about his ministry work in New Orleans (where he and his wife lived for years and lost their home and possessions to Katrina) and in several other third world countries. Platt spoke enthusiastically about the good being done, about how exciting it is that the people whom he is serving are open and accepting to the teachings of Christ, which he considers as life-giving. After what he explains as an “awkward pause, the Pastor of whose home I was invited said ‘I was just as soon have God annihilate those people and send them to hell.’ I was shocked speechless” (Platt, pg.63). This incident became one of several catalysts for David Platt writing his book Radical: Taking our Faith Back From the American Dream. The callous materialism of the American Evangelical Church, that is so ignorant of the central teaching of Christ and the New Testament that few even realize how an extreme American influence of racism and wealth obsession goes against the central ancient teachings of Christianity. This book had a profound effect on my personal and thinking life. And this scene I think, in particular, demonstrates a core belief that certain undesirables in society are “unproductive expenditures”.
This brings us to Roach’s third concrete presence of scapegoating. “All violence is performative…it must have an audience”. So, who was the audience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans? Again, Spike Lee’s careful research and interviews seem to point to one thing: not building the levees correctly, not responding to the disaster, and then not compensating for losses from the insurance companies, set the stage for building corporations to come into the ghost town districts and rebuild without any trace of the old neighborhood. Time and time again, in many scenes of When the Levees Broke, the interviewed natives of New Orleans expressed a feeling, almost pointedly directed from their own government that, “we are not wanted”.
In closing, I think Rene Girard’s cultural observations within his work, In Violence and the Sacred, written thirty three years prior to Hurricane Katrina that states “ the sacrificial victim neither fully a part of the community nor fully outside of it…but must be distanced by a special identity that specifies isolation while simultaneously allowing plausible surrogation for a member of the community” fits the bill nicely for the poorest and most disadvantaged and therefore the most unlike those with power, in the very singular city known as New Orleans. The book Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas does a great job explaining to outsiders, outsiders who know nothing about New Orleans besides it being the city of Mardi Gras, what the city is really like. In the first chapter Rebecca Snedeker writes, “New Orleans is set apart from the rest of the country, perhaps the world. Every place has its own place has its own body of knowledge, its own history, its own cultures. But what you find in New Orleans is rich, deep, strange (pg.8). Both authors build on this uniqueness in regards to its physical topography being such a sponge of water and land, that is impossible, in places, to distinguish between the two. Belonging to one element, and belonging to another, thus not belonging anywhere. She likens it to “the organ of the human liver, and its primary function to filter poisons” (pg.2). This is of course a natural consequence of living below sea level; a paradox of living conditions. This paradox of making your dwelling in a location, that by definition is not a dwelling, cycles its way to the very people of the community. Its diversity cannot hope to be explained in simple terms of white or black, rich or poor; it’s too layered. The author continues with her descriptions: “New Orleans is a city Incognita, unknown city, because even those who live here tend to know our own fragments” (pg.11). This “strange”, “uniqueness”, the “Incognita”, and “fragments” are all perfect conditions for a scapegoat. The not quite like the rest of us, therefore expendable, and undesirable, that are of little consequence for the powerful. This modern injustice, done by those in power, does have an ancient feel to it. The oldest stories almost always revolve the strong taking advantage of the weak. However, another element present in nearly all stories, since the beginning of storytelling, is that of a hero, making things right. I believe Spike Lee, in making this documentary wanted to expose the villain, and root for the hero.
*All quotes citing Roach will draw directly from his Echoes in the Bones essay.