(This is an essay presented by Ivan Paz at the American Academy of Religion [Western Region] in February 2017)
A culture of conflict generally exists in the U.S. between the criminal justice system and people of color, especially those who live in economically disadvantaged inner-city neighborhoods—who I will, for the sake of brevity, call “the urban poor”. This conflict has been graphically illustrated by the series of demonstrations for racial justice that have been occurring across the nation for the past few years. Concerned about the role of religion within this particular setting, this paper addresses the following question: instead of functioning as a prophetic voice and engaging in peace-building between the two, why is there a tendency among evangelical Protestants to side with the criminal justice system and support the institutional mistreatment of the urban poor?
While this tendency can be traced to the racial imagination that American Protestantism is rooted in, this paper focuses on the subtle fusion between two perspectives: the concept of ontological human sinfulness —i.e. the notion that humans are inherently sinful—and the assumption that crime is primarily an urban-poverty phenomenon. Drawing from Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory, this paper argues that this theological concept of the human functions as a powerful myth in evangelical-Protestant theology and that this myth is ideologically bound to the structural categories of criminality that have historically oppressed social minorities. To answer the question above, this bind compels the religious proponents of the myth to perceive the urban poor not only as sinners in a spiritual sense but as a kind of criminal-sinner whose suppression seems necessary for the establishment of order/justice in society.
Girardian Framework: Myth and Scapegoating
A common view in the field of anthropology is that myths are traditional narratives that engender cultural identity by explaining a community’s origins and sacred mission. According to Sigurd N. Skirbekk, myths generally (1) provide existential meaning to community members; (2) interpret complex social-struggles as conflicts between two cosmic forces; (3) incite members to participate in the culture of the community; (4) offer symbols that help members interpret social experiences; and (5) mobilize members toward specific social agendas.
Girard agrees: myths are foundational narratives for culture and society. But in terms of how they are constructed, Girard argues that myths are transfigured accounts of collective violence against “a scapegoat”: that is, a person or a group of people who are regarded as the primary source for the problems that threaten a community’s wellbeing and whose expulsion seems to be a necessary step toward establishing order and peace. Girard contends that behind the narrative of nearly every myth lies a true story of bloodshed but because the story is retold inter-generationally from the perspective of the persecutor, the story develops a seemingly innocent character of its own.
A basic understanding of Girard’s scapegoat theory is helpful here. According to Girard, humans are fundamentally imitative in nature: they have an instinctual tendency to imitate each other and a desire for others to imitate them. As the imitative relationship evolves, competition and rivalry ensues, creating conflict between those who are involved in the relationship. Girard calls this a mimetic crisis, at which point conflict escalates and becomes violent. The violence then spirals out of control, the community grows increasingly exhausted, and in its desperation for tranquility, the community dynamically converges upon an innocent victim who is blamed for the problems the community is experiencing. Assuming that the expulsion of the perceived culprit means the removal of the problems in the community, the victim is punished by exile or death. The perceived tranquility after the expulsion is interpreted as the result of a supernatural act and the scapegoat as type of divine messenger who sacrificed self for the community. The scapegoat becomes a sacred symbol of the community’s cultural unity and the story becomes the foundational myth for an emerging society, a myth that offers socio-structural precedents that supposedly will help prevent future crises.
If Girard is correct, then myths are never innocent stories; they are full of violence. They not only contain hidden accounts of bloodshed, but they also have the power to reinforce patterns of institutional scapegoating across multiple generations because myths, Girard argues, function as texts of persecution: i.e. narratives that incite violence on vulnerable social outcasts. When a society experiences cultural challenges, the imagination of the myth often compels the members of that society to resolve the crisis in ways that correspond with the principles that they have inherited from the myth. Desiring order, a society blames and sacrifices those whose presence is incongruous with the dominant culture—a culture that was shaped by its founding myth. Unfortunately, many do not think critically about the perspectives that are handed to them. Such is the case with many evangelicals in the U.S. They have blindly accepted a theological framework that is grounded in an erroneous myth about an inherently sinful, human nature, a myth that conceals an ideological scheme of domination that tends to target communities of color.
Ontological Sinfulness is a Dangerous Myth
The evangelical concept of ontological human sinfulness—or OHS for brevity—is a myth. Just as a myth provides a foundational narrative for a community, the concept of OHS provides a foundational narrative about human origins and the problem of evil (Adam and Eve sinned and transmitted a sinful nature to humanity). As a myth, it also identifies a problem (sinful humans liable to divine punishment) while presenting a solution (surrogate punishment through Christ’s body). In these ways, the concept of OHS functions as a myth, engendering a religious imagination that nurtures evangelical identity and incites Christian participation in a projected drama of redemption. This religious imagination, however, has a tendency to be co-opted by state powers that have an invested interest in social control.
Consider the Protestant connection to manifest destiny, the early American notion that the U.S. would lead the world in human progress. Manifest destiny assumed that white Americans were a superior race, ordained by God to populate the new world and establish order. These assumptions, however, were driven by an ideological interest in westward expansion. Along with the pioneers of this expansionist project, many of the revivalists, the predecessors of evangelical Protestants, were inspired to expand Christianity westward by “preaching salvation” to the non-Christian natives.
Proselytizing may seem like a pious undertaking to many Christians, but the truth is that land was coveted, slave-labor was needed, and the natives were regarded nuisance. Since human beings were considered depraved and divinely condemned by most early American Protestants, and since the cultural and physical characteristics of Native American, Mexican, and African peoples seemed non-Christian, these ethnic groups were regarded as deserving of God’s wrath. They became perfect targets for larceny, violence, and repression. A hierarchy of racial categories was developed and a racist illusion—buttressed by law and Protestant thought—was brought forth, resulting in the plundering of land from Native Americans, as well as the taking of freedom from Blacks.
This mechanism of domination and violence continues to be active in American institutions of justice today, and social minorities are the most vulnerable. When society experiences social challenges, social minorities are quickly blamed and scapegoated because they are typically seen as a nuisance to the prevailing order.
My Experience with Fresno’s Cease Fire Program
In 2010, I participated in a gang intervention forum called Fresno Cease Fire. This forum, which took place in a church facility, was a collaborative effort between evangelical ministry leaders and local government, intending to confront gang-members for their street violence. Having been ordered by probation and parole, gang-members arrived. The men were asked to sit in a group and face a panel of officers. Behind the panel hung a large backdrop, displaying the mugshots of several gang-members with details of their criminal convictions. Officers began the session by delivering a message to them: “leave the gang or face the full force of the criminal justice system.” When the officers finished speaking, they left the building. Then it was the ministers’ turn to approach the gang-members with resources and “the gospel”.
As the ministers approached the men, I approached “Wicked,” the one who seemed to be the most influential among the gang-members. Having come from the same background, I assumed that I would easily connect with him. I was wrong. Before I uttered my first word, Wicked said, “Look dog… You ain’t here for us. You are here for the cops. In fact, you are one with them, so fuck you! You ain’t nothing but a sell-out.” I was discouraged! We were only trying to help them, I thought. When I shared what Wicked had said to me with one of the other ministers who had been present, his response was, “Ivan, these criminals are sinners. They need to accept the gospel and change their ways, otherwise they will suffer the consequences of God’s justice.”
Protestant evangelicals who embrace the myth of OHS are not always aware of how their perspective of human nature is bound to notions of criminality. Yet the reality is that the two intersect quite often. This carries serious implications for the ways in which one understands the urban context. If crime is understood as a direct result of ontological sinfulness and there tends to be a preponderance of crime in urban neighborhoods, will it not be logical to assume that a preponderance of sinfulness exists there as well? Indeed this is often the assumption. Just ask ordinary, evangelical folks, “Where is the bad side of town?” Watch them point their finger toward the inner-city. Then ask them, “Where do you see human depravity the most in your city?” Watch their finger point in the same direction again. They may claim that all sins are equally evil and that all humans are equally sinful, yet the concentration of criminal reports connected to these types of neighborhoods and the evangelical tendency to associate crime with sin compels these folks to associate depravity with the inner-city at a much higher level than economically affluent areas. In theory, all people are sinful but in practice, the urban poor are the ones who are treated as sinners. They seem spiritually lost, more dangerous, intimidating, and in even greater need of “the transformative power of the gospel”.
Two Lenses and The Illusion of the Criminal-Sinner
The tendency to perceive the urban poor in terms of sinfulness and criminality results from the subtle fusion of two perspectives: the myth of OHS and the notion of urban criminality—that is, the host of criminal stereotypes associated with disenfranchised inner-city neighborhoods as a result of the illusion cast by the criminal justice system and mass media. While OHS is fundamentally a theological perspective maintained by many Christians, the notion of urban criminality is generally a secular perspective held by a large portion of the American population, Christian and non-Christian alike. Analogous to the way that two lenses on a set of 3D glasses function together to produce powerful and life-like illusions out of certain medium, these two perspectives tend to merge together, creating for many evangelicals an image of depravity when they consider the urban poor.
Let me delineate this a bit further. One lens, the myth of OHS, creates the perception that human nature is totally depraved and that all humans are equally sinful. The other lens, the notion of urban criminality, associates crime with the urban context. If the two views are like lenses on a set of 3D glasses, then the concept of divine right is like the bridge between a pair of glasses, the piece that holds the lenses together. The Protestant concept of divine right hybridizes notions of sin and crime, and through this hybridity, notions of criminality and sinfulness intersect. On the one hand, the notion of urban criminality compels the perspective of OHS to direct its theological focus on the concreteness of the urban context and apply its interpretation of human nature on the urban poor. On the other hand, the perspective of OHS ascribes a spiritual dimension to the perspective of urban criminality, so that criminal behavior begins to look more like the outworking of human depravity rather than the result of social and economic inequity. As a result of this conceptual synthesis, people of color—esp. from poor urban neighborhoods—are perceived not only as sinners but as criminally inclined sinners.
The Fusion of the Two Perspectives
Evangelicals should not assume that they are somehow uniquely shielded from the influence of the criminal justice system and the media, nor that they are blameless from stereotyping the urban poor. If there is anything unique about evangelicals, it is that they add another dimension to the stereotypes, a dimension that is spiritual in nature. Like the two lenses on the set of 3D glasses, the lens of urban criminality works together with the lens of OHS to create for the Christian a sinister image of the urban poor. The former lens obscures from their perception any innocence the poor may have had, while the latter supplants the biblical claim that the poor bear the image of God. When the perception of the two lenses fuse into one, the religious imagination of evangelicals incorporates the ideological dimensions connected to notions of urban criminality, producing the illusion that the urban poor are culprits responsible for the problems threaten the social order. Evangelicals wearing these set of lenses find the illusion powerful and irresistible because it seems to stand on truth.
The two perspectives, urban criminality and OHS, easily combine in the mind of the Christian. I identify three reasons for this. The first reason is that both perspectives pay special attention to deviant behavior. The perspective of urban criminality, influenced mostly by the criminal justice system, pays special attention to illegal behavior in an effort to identify crime. The myth of OHS focuses on all human behavior and interprets it as rooted in selfishness and depraved desire. The main difference between the two is that the latter locates malevolence inside of the human’s being while the former identifies it in the acts themselves, or in places where these acts often take place. Nonetheless, notions of urban criminality, like the religious view, also absolutize evil in humans by labeling offenders as criminals.
Second, both perspectives hold human beings responsible for evil in one form or another. The myth of OHS presumes that all humans are guilty of lawlessness because they have broken God’s law and are born with a nature that is offensive to divine standards. The perspective of urban criminality assumes that people are guilty when legal authorities and the data they provide declare it. Both perspectives follow a pattern of legality yet the religious one seems to be more rigid and less merciful because, according to its logic, one cannot be absolved from wrongful acts unless blood is spilled. Nevertheless, both perspectives use similar concepts of legality to hold humans responsible for evil and, as a result, the two almost inevitably combine. This was evident in the collaboration between the church ministers and Fresno police officers as they attempted to confront and hold the gang-members accountable for their violence.
Finally, both perspectives interact in a complimentary way. Notions of urban criminality reinforce the concept of ontological sinfulness by supplying it with empirical evidence. Apart from observable or measurable phenomena, the claim that sinfulness resides inside of the human is an untenable idea—for on what empirical grounds can one make such a claim? But people holding the myth of OHS usually capitalize on data depicting evil and interpret it as evidence of inherent sinfulness. For example, one pastor, referring to the Ferguson protests, said, “When the men and women and young people were rioting… they were manifesting the natural depravity of their hearts.” In turn, notions of urban criminality gain religious adherents and the criminal justice system gains moral validation, especially in their institutional suppression of criminalized people.
People who wear glasses typically view the world around them without consciously paying attention to the lenses they are wearing, nor do they critically assess how their lenses shape the way they view the world. They just observe. Likewise, evangelicals are not always aware that they view the world through certain perspectives and they are not always keen to assess the ways in which their lenses affect the way they perceive the world. They simply observe. In regard to the myth of OHS and the notion of urban criminality, evangelicals are generally oblivious to the fact that together these two lenses create the kind of perception which make the urban poor not only vulnerable to institutional scapegoating. They do not immediately sense the ideological dynamics at work because the myth of OHS absorbs notions of urban criminality into its own mythical narrative of sin and redemption. Thus when police interrogate, beat, or kill a person of color from the urban context or when the courts incarcerate or execute them in overwhelming amounts, evangelicals do not usually look at the criminal justice system with suspicion. Instead, they tend to respond indifferently or support the system. They may see themselves as “a voice” in the urban wilderness, calling people to salvation, but as soon as Wicked knocks their lenses off with his words, as he did to me, they will discover that they seem more like the religious voice of a lynch mob, calling the urban poor to recant or suffer institutional punishment.