This is Not a Test

 And [God] said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.  And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass . . . . and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and . . . Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 

Genesis 22

This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.

Momma

 Ever wonder what Isaac thought about his father after that ram showed up?

Caravaggio

What, for instance, was Friday Night Dinner like? When Isaac asked Abraham to pass the challah, did he have to stifle-back denunciations and ire? (“Motherfucker tied me to a fucking rock and fucking held a fucking knife to my throat and then said, ‘Nevermind’ like it was nothing! What the fucking-fuck?”[1]) Did he plan retribution with a Gefilte fish? Were his fantasies filled with bludgeoning his father with Sarah’s gluten-free Kugel? Did he think, “Someday we are going to have to stop putting so much yeast in this bread so a son can use it as a weapon . . .” Family dinner eaten among old-injuries are never about nutrition. Just ask Laura Esquivel, or any Hermeticist, if you are angry in the midst of food, anger is what you will consume. And it will, in turn, eat you up.

But, maybe Isaac didn’t spend his Friday Night Dinners hatin’-on his da. Could it be that Isaac, respecting the God of his father, accepted the situation as necessary and as difficult for his father to perform as it was for him to endure?

How can a child conceptualize this?

I’ve recently had to saddle up my ass and make a similar sacrifice. I had been instructed to “cut that one loose.”

I love me some Chagall

Admittedly, I was not as immediately obedient as Abraham was, I couldn’t imagine why my genius/deity would call me up to Mount Moriah.[2] So I dawdled and delayed and made the situation much worse in the doing. But – eventually – I went. Hoping wildly for a last-minute beast of burden, I held my (metaphorical, of course) knife to the throat of someone I loved.[3] Not only was I allowed to cut, but because of my initial hesitation, I had to twist the knife and salt the wound.[4]  But if I’m Abraham in this metaphor, why did I had to slit the throat of my beloved[5] rather than being rescued by an eleventh-hour beast?

This is why I’m thinking about scapegoats.

The story of the binding of Isaac is problematic. Not only in the telling of little Sunday School children that they are to worship a god that may or may not tell their mommies and daddies to sacrifice their chubby cheeks, but even Kierkegaard, who admittedly had daddy issues of his own, had his mind blown by Abraham’s parenting skills. But the biggest issue people tend to talk about in regard to Abraham’s actions is that if someone today were to claim that God told him to kill his son, we would do a psych panel and send them off for some hard time. But “God” spoke to Abraham and when “God” (or whatever you choose to call her) really wants to tell us something, she has a way of doing so that lets us know without a doubt that we are not delusional. So the problem is not that Abraham was uncertain about his order, but he was very certain about it.[6]

In Violence and the Sacred (1972)[7], René Girard writes about religion and violence and claims that what he calls the “mimetic cycle of violence” is at the root of human culture.  For instance, in his discussion of The Ten Commandments, Girard parallels “coveting” to “mimetic desire.” You see, after our needs for food, shelter, and sex are met, we have no real default for desires. Like Hannibal Lecter teaches us, we learn what to desire by watching others.  We see others with certain material goods, family situations, financial prospects, physical attributes, intellectual capacities, social standing, spiritual blessings, etc. and (particularly when we are underwhelmed by our own lives, we intuit that those things possessed by the other must be desirable, and then start wanting those thing for ourselves. We covet.

My understanding of covetousness goes a step further. When I was growing up, Brother PreacherMan taught us that coveting was not just “wanting something like what someone else had”, but “wanting the thing itself” – in other words, wanting to take it from the other, thereby leaving the other without. Here is where I was always taught “sin” of covetousness resided. Not in the wanting to emulate but in the wanting to dispossess another for solipsistic gain.

Now, as a grown-up, I just call this “meanness.” An interesting word. Meanness – not just being stingy or cruel, but being inferior or common.

Here’s where I get into Girard. If someone is mean (inferior), s/he will covet that which a seemingly superior other possesses. In coveting, she is mean. This meanness creates an inescapable cycle of “mimetic desire” which results in the “mimetic cycle of violence.” I agree with Girard when he says that mimetic rivalry has no choice but to spin out of control, feeding viciously upon itself, undermining and threatening to destroy community.

But, Girard offers an escape to the cycle of madness. When rivalry reaches a boiling point, a point of “mimetic crisis,” communities divide against themselves, and a new apparatus emerges to bring them back together:  the scapegoat.  Here, the entire community unites against a scapegoat, and all-against-all becomes all-against-one.  The community’s destructive tensions are released, and unity and peace are (temporarily) restored. Like the divine gift of a ram to Abraham, Girard’s “founding murder,” the scapegoat becomes the new basis for community. Ironically, the scapegoat is usually innocent.

Such a cathartic sacrifice of an innocent victim requires a certain amount of self-deception among those who participate.  It is imperative that everyone in the community get caught up in the same passions and actions (Girard identifies this phenomenon as “mimetic contagion”) therefore it is imperative that no one question what is happening.[8]

I have been both the scapegoat and part of the community. Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Over and over.

Again, this little community to which I belonged had reached a boiling point. Again. And it was time for the ritualistic (seemingly bi-annual) blood sacrifice.

From Samhain 2009 to Imbolc 2011, we had peace. Then the community balance went off kilter. Summer brought drama and The Bad Witch is too fricking old for drama. But, I kept telling myself, “This too shall pass.”

Autumn brought lies and betrayal. Loads of lies. Stoopid lies that have no usefulness whatsoever. And loads of betrayals. Stoopid and petty betrayals.  But, I kept telling myself, “This too shall pass.”

My soul was being drained daily. I knew I was being lied to and I knew I was being betrayed and I knew that I was too old to play these sorts of games. I was spinning all of my magic on protection and balancing and clearing and grounding and just trying to keep my head on straight. But, I kept telling myself, “This too shall pass.”

But when I saw a new lamb being lead to the slaughter, I had to check out. [9] I just couldn’t keep watching a new, innocent scapegoat go to the pyre for the well-being of a community caught up in violent mimetic covetousness.

So, I obediently made my way to Moriah.

But, you see, I think just figured it out.

I’m not Abraham.

I’m the ram.


[1] I obviously envision Isaac with a Debra Morgan-esque potty-mouth.

[2] This is not true. I’m lying to myself. I knew. I didn’t want it to be true so I engaged in willfully indulgent self-deceit and avoided my mandate.

I also knew that this wasn’t the first time we’d danced to this tune – in any lifetime. What’s worse is I know we’ll do it again in the next life. Again. Damnit. (I really do wish we could get it right – I hoped we had. I actually believe we did. Then, well, some things just don’t come back right. “It may look like that person, but it ain’t that person.” King, Stephen. Pet Sematary. Perf. Fred Gwinn. 1989. Film.)

[3] Like a child, someone for whom I felt responsible, someone whose spiritual development had become my undertaking, someone whose emotional healing had become my primary venture, someone I loved and continue to love with depth and breadth of understanding.

[4] But only because this relationship has, several times in the past, been shown to have resurrection powers unrivaled by Michael Meyers’.

[5] Holy shit, it’s only on proofreading that I see Sethe in the shed . . .

[6] I have no need to get into the Judeo-Christian theological implications of the freedom versus divine-knowledge paradox (i.e. If the divine knows what we will choose, is there a possibility of fee-will?), but the Pagan implications open a whole new can of worms. I’ve been struggling with the Wyrd/Freewill paradox and this throws a wrench in any intellectual progress I’d made up until now. Thanks Abraham.

[7] La Violence et le sacré.

[8] Gerard connects “mimetic contagion” to the concept of Satan and applies scapegoating in Judeo-Christian terms of crucifixion, resurrection, and Eucharistic remembrance. But I’m a Pagan. We all know that civilizations founded on an original scapegoat sacrifice required ritualistic evocation of that sacrifice at regular intervals to remind the community of that which their society is based. So, we’ll stick with that part and disregard The Accuser, eternal salvation, gnosis, and apocalypse for the moment.

[9] It’s so much more complicated than this. Whatever. Go watch “Jersey Shore” if you like that sort of thing.

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11 comments on “This is Not a Test

  1. […] will occasionally be cliques and factions; usually this is healthy – sometimes it is a disaster. As long as those work together, the whole can be healthy. Once they start backbiting, […]

  2. […] are about you. They are not. This, however, is. (The last time I actually blogged about you was Abraham and Isaac. And that was more about my experience than you, per se.) I’ll make you a deal, to avoid […]

  3. […] I was used to being chucked off the port-side bow every time the winds got a little brisk. (See Abraham and Isaac.) I thought I’d save everyone the trouble. Once I got in the water and started looking around for […]

  4. […] blamed for stoopid-head-Joff’s injury. (Sadly, Lady, her sister’s dog, became the scapegoat – but that’s a different post.) It happens all the time in […]

  5. […] and giving in to his fictional heterodoxical scapegoat story. You know how TBW feels about lies and scapegoat stories, […]

  6. […] how having a scapegoat (like a Bad Witch) helps ailing communities get stronger through the “mimetic cycle of violence” at the root of human […]

  7. […] an instant that she was the new scapegoat offered up to assure cultural continuity (go read “This is Not A Test,” we’ll wait), she was the new member of the blacklist, the new member of a […]

  8. Reblogged this on The Bad Witch Files and commented:

    Thought this was worth re-posting. It’s still spot on. Every four to seven months, a new lamb to slaughter . . . Somebody please tell me you know an institution like this. I can’t be the only one in bizzaro world.

  9. […] . . even though they often bind-together (in a way that proves all of René Girard’s points about scapegoating) to smack-talk, ill-blog about, and wish nuisances on me. . […]

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