Confronting the Blame Game

Lent 4         March 26, 2017

John 9:1-41

There is a very revealing line at the beginning of today’s gospel reading. When the disciples first catch sight of the man born blind, they ask Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What an interesting question that is! Why would they say that? Let’s try to unpack that question.

There would appear to be some big assumptions behind that question. First of all, the assumption that if someone suffers a misfortune, then there must be a sin involved somehow. They must have done something to deserve it.

Behind that assumption lies another, more general one: the assumption that the universe is a morally coherent place. That is to say, that everything happens for a reason in life, a moral reason, and not by chance. Behind this assumption lies a religious conviction: that everything that happens, happens because God wills it. God has chosen to let this man be born blind, and since God is moral, then the blindness must be according to some moral principle. So he must have deserved it. The price of the disciples’ religious conviction that God is in charge is to blame the victim.

There is another assumption implied here as well: the assumption that it couldn’t happen to me. If misfortune comes because of sin, then all I have to do is avoid committing the kind of sin that would deserve such a harsh punishment, and I’ll be okay. There is a strong psychological motivation for the disciples reacting the way they do: it gives them the illusion of being in control. A world where bad things can happen to good people, randomly, is just too scary to contemplate.

I wish we could say that the disciples are exhibiting here some primitive thinking which we humans have long put behind us. Unfortunately this is not the case: the instinct to blame the victim is very much with us.

We still see it with illness.  To a lesser extent, perhaps: because we have come to understand better the physical causes of illness, we are sometimes less judgemental. We can’t blame someone for getting cancer – unless they are a smoker, of course, but even then we accept that they don’t deserve cancer. But there are other illnesses, like AIDS, which many people think are appropriate punishments for “sin”. There are other conditions that are still surrounded by a culture of blame. People are quick to moralize obesity, to assume that it comes from a lack of willpower and poor lifestyle choices, where there is often a physiological reason. And even if poor lifestyle choices are involved, there are reasons for these.
Or take addictions: it is so easy to move into blaming mode, rather than asking the more constructive question, what do these people need to get better. The whole area of mental illness is flooded and confused by moralizing thinking, by the idea that if these people would just pull themselves together and show a little strength of character they would be fine. What a terribly cruel and destructive way of thinking that is – but it is still very widespread. What else lies behind the shameful neglect of veterans’ mental health in our country; how many more veterans will have to die by their own hand before we really understand that PTSD is real and deadly and completely undeserved.

So we cling to these habits of blaming the victim, even if our rational selves know it is wrong. We cling to them, I think, because they give us the illusion of control, the illusion that it can’t happen to me.

Think of how popular victim-blaming is in our political life. Politicians, or at least a certain class of politicians, will go back to that strategy again and again, because it’s a proven vote-getter. They blame Muslims in general for terrorism: even though Muslims make up the vast majority of the victims of terrorism. They blame the very refugees fleeing the terrorists. And, of course, they conveniently forget the century and more of Western colonial interference in the Middle East that has laid the groundwork for terrorism.

They blame the poor, citing examples of welfare queens, moralizing about poor lifestyle choices, telling them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – in complete ignorance of what the life of the poor is like, of the hundred small and larger obstacles to digging oneself out of the hole of poverty. Blaming the poor is a good distraction from addressing the real problem behind poverty: an economic system that rewards corporate profits above human dignity, and continues to make the very rich even richer at the cost of the rest of us.

And so on. We could talk about “tough on crime” policies, or race relations, or other ways in which blaming poisons our social life. The blame game is still very much with us, and for the same reasons the disciples played it: blaming the victim helps us feel better about ourselves, it helps us feel in control, and it allows us to imagine we live in a safe world where everything happens for a reason.

At its root, the blame game is a refusal to accept a basic fact of life. Let’s call it the tragic dimension of life: that bad things can happen, can happen to any one of us, for no particular reason, and there is nothing we can do about it, nothing but grieve and try to cope. It is an aspect of life, of the way the world is made, a bug in the system, part of the vulnerability of being human. Sometimes we are brought face to face with it. When we lost dear Paulette, we faced it as a community: there is no reason, no sense, no one to blame. It just happens. But when it is someone a bit further away from us, a stranger, someone from a different background: well, then the blame game kicks in. Then we can deny our common humanity, and insist on the differences between us and them, because then we can imagine it could never happen to us.

So let it be said clearly: as followers of Jesus, we are called to give up playing the blame game. We are to look the tragedy of life in the eyes, to accept that bad things happen, and to treat the victim with compassion, not blame.

In our Friday book study this week we got to talking about the crucifixion of Jesus, and what it means. I think we were all more or less agreed with the author of the book, that the explanation for why Jesus had to die that many of us learned in Sunday School just doesn’t cut it for us anymore: the idea that he had to shed his blood as payment for our sins to appease the wrath of God. I won’t get into all that is wrong with that explanation; that’s another sermon. But we were left with a question. If that explanation doesn’t work, how are we to understand Jesus’s death as working salvation for us?

There are a number of answers to that question which for me are far more convincing than the blood sacrifice idea. Fundamentally, I believe it has to do with God’s loving choice to enter into our suffering, to enter the depth of human oppression and despair, and so transform it by his love.

One way of talking about that, which I have found very helpful, has to do with the blame game. It is rooted in the ideas of a French philosopher by the name of Rene Girard. He talks about the role of the scapegoat in human societies: that again and again in history we see human societies pull together by choosing a victim to blame for all their ills. It could be an external enemy, the neighbours in a rival kingdom.  But often it is the “enemy” within: the Jews, the poor, the Leftists (or, in revolutionary France or Russia, the rich), criminals, foreigners. Having decided that the scapegoat is to blame for all our problems, we kill them or drive them out, and come together as a pure and united people. It is the blame game taken to extremes.

When Jesus was crucified, we see a text book case of the scapegoat. He was blamed, as a revolutionary, a rabble-rouser, a blasphemer. He was rejected by the mob which cried out for his blood. He was killed, and his killing cemented a pact between the Roman and Jewish authorities: Pilate and Herod became friends from that day forward. The scapegoat ploy worked like it always does.

Except (Rene Girard points out), in the case of Jesus’s death, God has taken the place of the scapegoat. God has gone to the cross. And in so doing, he has exposed the whole scapegoat ploy, the whole blame game, as a lie. It is a lie that the victim is guilty and deserves to die: the one they crucified was the least guilty person ever to walk the earth. And that is why, for those who claim to follow Jesus, blaming the victim is not an option. That is what they did to our Lord. As Christians then, it is our duty to proclaim and defend the victim’s innocence.

Jesus gives an interesting answer to the disciples’ question in today’s reading. Do you remember what he says? ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’ It’s a bit of a confusing answer. Taken too literally, it seems to imply that God had somehow set this man up, decided twenty years ago at the man’s birth that he would be born and grow up blind just so Jesus would have someone to show off on. That would be taking it too exactly, I think.

I read this as a more general statement: that human suffering, wherever we meet it, is an opportunity for the works of God to be revealed. The works of God are compassion, love, caring; and whenever and wherever we meet suffering, we are given an opportunity to show these works of God working in us. Rather than playing the blame game, of looking for a reason why this person is not like us and probably deserves what is happening to them, we are to do the brave thing, to recognize that they are human just like us, and to bring to them the same compassion, understanding, and care we would bring to Jesus on the cross. In that the works of God, the glory of God, is revealed.