Who is to Blame?



The scale of the Hurricane Katrina disaster should prevent any evasion of responsibility for either the incomplete evacuation or the sloth and incoherence of the relief effort. This refers to both local authorities (police officers in neighboring Gretna actually drove off refugees from New Orleans, saying that “there would be no Superdomes in their city”) and the federal government (it will be very hard to forget Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard’s angry criticism of FEMA on Meet the Press: “For God’s sake, shut up and send us somebody”). I find it very hard to disagree with the calls for an independent commission to conduct a fair and thorough investigation “composed of members with no current government connections and with impeccable credentials, much like the bipartisan 9/11 Commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attack,” in the Hartford Courant’s words. If, amidst the angry polarization of the present, such a thing is even imaginable.

The scale of the Hurricane Katrina disaster should force us to ask difficult questions. But, even though it was overwhelming – presenting us with images of America that we never thought that we would see, and threatening our collective sense of security, both financially at the gas pumps and ideologically by reminding us of the forgotten reality of urban poverty – we should not be so quick to find answers. It would be easy to list the offensive claims of divine judgment, conspiracy theories, and disturbing attempts to blame African-American victims through a narrowly disguised racism (no links!). But, beyond that, many of the immediate reactions have been depressingly predictable attempts to place all the failure on a usual culprit whose marginalization (if not elimination) would presumably bring us security once again. It is here, I think, that Christians need to counsel, at the very least, patience.

In a 2004 article, the exegete Mark Bredin tells us that the Bible, in particular the Book of Revelation, uncovers the mechanism of blame and revenge that we still so often find consoling in troubled times. In the ancient world, plays such as Oedipus Rex were used by the Athenians as rituals to purge their collective guilt through the punishment of a scapegoat, called the pharmakos. “Pharmakos” is usually translated as sorcerer, but scapegoats, just like sorcerers, bring a mysterious healing in the midst of social turmoil. For Dr Bredin, “The pharmakos is one who is blamed and then condemned in order to restore peace to the community.” In Revelation 22.15 the pharmakoi are placed outside of the holy city “to indicate that there is no place in a peaceful society for blaming others for the fault that is their own.” After all, Jesus’ death as the innocent scapegoat of people in crisis has been condemned as an injustice. And it is a paradigmatic injustice: Rene Girard writes, “When we identify with the person in need or who has been victimized, we encounter the Son of Man.” Christians do not have scapegoats.

The martyrs ask God, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (6:10). But God’s answer is not in the punishment of individual enemies, but in the “judgment of the great harlot” that has deceived those enemies, and the coming of the new order of the Lamb. This harlot had been riding a beast, which is the dragon embodied in one violent empire after another (Dan 7-8, 11-12). There is, however, a second beast that is the priesthood of the emperor-cult: “It performed great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of everyone” (13:13). “This second beast – the imperial cult priest – like the Jerusalem temple high priest, Caiaphas, initiates the blame and retaliation process. Caiaphas says: ‘It is better that one man die and that the whole nation not perish’ (Jn 11:50).” This is the logic of the pharmakos.

In Revelation 9, St John had already spoken of those survivors of the plague who did not repent of their murders, pharmakon, fornication, and robbery. The “plague” is any disruption that brings desperate violence into a threatened community. “It is possible that John in mentioning sorcery is referring to the practice of those who put others to death as a way of bringing a temporary peace back to the community where violence has escalated dangerously.” St John also condemns Rome in Chapter 18, “Because your merchants were the great ones of the world, all nations were led astray by your pharmakeia” (23). Dr Bredin says that many Christians had been seduced by the security and wealth of Rome and no longer could see that the “pax Romana is established and maintained through the sacrifice of those who are outsiders.”

But the only way to enter the holy city is to be washed in the blood of the Lamb (22:14). The other violent rituals of cleansing and purification are left outside the city: “Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the unchaste, the murderers, the idol-worshipers, and all who love and practice deceit” (22:13). For St John, idolatry, fornication (14:8, 17:2), and deceit (Jn 8:44) are all connected to murder. Pigs were sacrificed before Roman gods, and the reference to dogs, which Jesus had paired with pigs (“Do not give what is holy to dogs,” Mt 7:6), might also be an allusion to sacrificial animals. In the holy city, the long tradition of ritually sacrificing others to bring peace – from the pharmaka Jezebel’s putting the prophets to death in a famine to appease her gods (1 Kgs 18:4) to the Wisdom of Solomon’s denunciation of a pharmakeia juxtaposed with allusive references to the slaughter of children and feasting on flesh and blood (12:4-5) – is over. St John himself might have been familiar with the story of Apollonius of Tyana and the Beggar in Ephesus later recounted by Philostratus. Ephesus, suffering from a plague, asks the magician Apollonius for help. He turns to a blind beggar and tells the Ephesians, “Pick up as many stones as you can and hurl them at this enemy of the gods.” The murdered beggar is then conveniently revealed as a demon in the form of a large dog. But now we know that when we stone others, we only reveal our own bondage to the beast.

“Inside the holy city there is no place for blame and accusation. Satan and his reign remain outside the holy city – in the lake of fire (21:8) where there are only blame, accusation, and murder.” But now we Americans are faced with an unprecedented crisis that has threatened our collective security and even our identity (have you heard people say, “We expected this in a foreign country, but …”). This is our “plague.”

Will we find ourselves a pharmakos? How depressingly familiar. We’ve always needed to “shoot the looters.”

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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