Scapegoat

Outrage!  I got a letter in the mail this past week from the landlord.  The complicated missal detailed all the cost inputs that make up my rent and then concluded with the unfortunate news that the company cannot avoid raising my rate.  I haven’t even lived here a year, and now they’re going to raise the rent on me!?  And by how much?  “Euro 00.01.”  That’s right, my monthly rent is going up by one cent!

So it will take over three years for the company to recoup the cost of the 44 cent stamp on the letter informing me of the rate hike.  Fortunately I can appeal this decision if I feel so inclined.  I’m tempted, just for the fun of it.

The Dutch are notoriously careful and exact with money.  They are exceptionally good at keeping track of it to the last cent (obviously).  If you are a tourist in Holland and you suddenly find yourself in a place where you are surrounded by a crowd of individuals each silently holding a little white piece of paper in front of their faces, don’t worry.  You have not entered a twilight zone or stumbled into a living work of art.  You are at the post-checkout side of a Dutch supermarket, and those people are just making sure they didn’t pay a cent extra for what is in their bags.

As with the Scots, so with the Dutch: other nations poke fun at their tightfistedness.  We all know what “going Dutch” means.  And maybe you’ve heard: “How was copper wire invented?  Two Dutchmen fighting over a penny.”  Or: “The Dutch are just Englishmen who refused to pay the fare to cross the channel.”  (I can’t go along with that one because I know the Dutch are quite different from the English in so many ways.  Another proverb which makes the rounds in the ex-pat community: “The English are too polite to be honest; the Dutch are too honest to be polite.”)

And to whom do the Dutch themselves attribute their carefulness with money, and every other expression of level-headed-party-poop-ed-ness in their society?   John Calvin, the theologian and church reformer.

A major exhibition has just opened here in which Calvin’s influence on all things Dutch is explored in detail.  Being a churchman myself, but one who believes God is okay with a good dose of joie de vive, I’m interested to go along and learn more about Calvin’s legacy.  I suspect he’s actually given more credit – or blame –  than he deserves, that his followers were more Calvinistic than the man himself, and all Calvinism did was build on tendencies and value preferences already present in this culture.

Still, it’s handy to have someone else to blame for one’s trials; most of us have a selection of such individuals in our own lives.

I won’t bore you with details, but there is some good theological work on the concept of the “scapegoat” – the fall guy on whom we can load our collective failings and send, literally or figuratively, outside the camp.  It brings back social cohesion and a sense of peace when all the rest of us can stand with our noses in the same direction and point the collective finger of blame at someone else.  This arrangement only works, though, when the scapegoat doesn’t have a voice and isn’t able to pop the balloon of the collective myth of what really happened.  That’s why minorities and the marginalized are often made scapegoats: they don’t have ready access to objective media and public opinion.  Banning (exile) is a popular option; if they are gone we can say anything we like about them and they can’t reply!   Alternately, having someone who is already dead and buried to blame one’s neuroses on – Calvin, for instance – is a safe choice.

And if we have to kill them ourselves, we can always attach God’s name to it (“promised land”, “manifest destiny”) and explain away our murderous action in terms of doing God’s will.  The Bible details for us the history of Israel’s move away from that kind of thinking and finds in Christ the ultimate scapegoat – the innocent victim who turns the tables by coming back to life, finding his voice and unmasking the collective lie, breaking the power of the father of lies.  The jig is up.  Would-be scapegoats everywhere now have an advocate whose name is Truth.  Our road to individual and collective wholeness (“salvation”) requires growth in owning up to our own motives and actions, rather than laying the blame on others.

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