Messiahs and Scapegoats: a reflection on discipleship and community – by Bruce Hamill

Those in leadership realise at some point – usually early on (especially if it’s informal leadership) – that the human desire for a messiah is profound and universal. We don’t like to admit this drive to find ourselves a Messiah. We have made an absolute value of our situation as individuals and treat it as a cosmic necessity. Not only do we think we are islands, but we believe we have a duty to preserve this insularity at the core of our being.

Like us, the ancients had a taboo on imitation. As an extension of this, although possibly for different reasons, we in the modern world make following and copying anathema. We like to think all loyalty to leaders is purely rational, or at least should be, and we are inclined to shun all reliance on leadership with calls for self-reliance. This is ironically enshrined in management discourse on leadership in which the encouragement to lead is not really paralleled by an encouragement to follow. In spite of our reticence to rely on leaders, desire for leadership constantly arises as if from a subterranean psychological or sociological cavern that intuits something profoundly interconnected about our human existence and something profoundly communal about both our problems and the solutions. In spite of this philosophical heritage, a good leader intuitively feels like a kind of salvation.

In Matthew 15 Jesus is reported as climbing up a mountain and still he is followed by a crowd of maybe 5000 people, who “throw” their lame, blind and mute at his feet. It is hard for our imaginations (shaped by the high-modern lenses of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”) to imagine a non-ironical search for a Messiah and yet in hard (Trumpian) times, we need to revisit some of these matters. They climbed to the top of a mountain (with their lame and blind!) in search of a Messiah. The possibility that he might be THE ONE drew them like moths to a flame.

For all our worship of individuality, we desire to be led. Whether we like it or not, our desires are bound together in our common life. We do things together with others. Even our capitalist economy shapes, prior to anyone’s consent, a common desire and a common form of life.

This same inter-connectedness of our desires (desire in the singular even!) helps us to understand not just why we love a good Messiah, but also why it is so hard to love our enemies. Messiahs unite us. So do enemies.

“Love your enemy!” is an iconic word from the Christian tradition. It is Jesus’ word and those who believe they should love their enemies tend to so so in response to his God-word – a word which can give rise to a courageous hope for a world without enemies. Because of this word we like to imagine that, like God, we might be free to “love the sinner” (including ourselves) and “hate the sin” (including our own). The problem with this lies not with the aforementioned iconic word but with our lack of self-awareness and our particular proclivity to self-deception. Let me elaborate.

In our modernist context we are prone to think that loving our enemies (or the “sinner”) is simply or primarily a matter of wanting to. And so it seems plausible that our will is unhindered in its ability to control our desire. We imagine ourselves wanting what we want to want. However, if, as I am suggesting, our desires are are not really (in their origin) our own, then alongside this delusory image of our psycho-dynamics is a delusion about our transparency to ourselves. We think that we know what we truly love and do not love, hate and do not hate.

As Christians we listen to moral teaching week by week reminding us of our principled calling to “love thy enemies”. We want to love the ones that either hate us or that we hate (ie those who have created deep negative attitudes like distaste, within us). however, our wish to love and the enmity functioning within us operate on different levels.

Consequently the thought that we should love our enemies combined with the thought that this is simply a matter of will-power and obedience shames us into telling ourselves that we do love everyone, when the truth is that we merely want to or feel we should want to. This story we tell ourselves conceals from us our deeper feelings. They are driven underground by a combination of modernist and Christian assumptions. We think we know ourselves, but in fact there is more going on in us that we can see ourselves. Hypocrisy is alive and well.

We imagine we have no enemies. We imagine the unity we have is therefore solely a matter of our shared ideals – driven neither by the charisma of our leader nor the unanimity of our enmity.

The truth we need to see, but don’t really want to, is that who we love or hate is deeply shaped by the communities and relationships and day-to-day processes in which our identities are formed. In this context both messiahs and scapegoats perform enormously important functions in the face of potential chaos during difficult times. Both roles unite the community against a common enemy.

Communities can be united by love or violence. And the stories we tell about one another often with righteous intention for the sake of the unity and peace of the (so-called) community can be the preparatory work for that moment when a scapegoat is selected. Often many stories are told so there is a ready store of potential scapegoats to be chosen when the stars align and all hell breaks loose.

I have found these dynamics of scapegoating and messiah-following in both social housing communities and in churches. But they operate slightly differently in each context. There is a certain overtness about them in the social housing context, whereas they operate in a more guarded manner in Christian or church organisations where the unity of the organisation is imbued with religious significance.

Social Housing communities often struggle to find good leadership and common goals so they are often united around their scapegoats rather than their positive common task. Leadership that does exist can often be subject to power struggles and the leaders who do have power are often vulnerable. All of this produces a lot of inertia and fear. This means that building significant community and relationships can be hard work. Unity around scapegoats can often be much more explicit and overtly brutal as there are less ideals of behaviour defining the community. It is easy to name someone or some group as the source of our problems. It also appears to be much more immediately effective. The primary problem that presents itself is the routine reliance on practices of slander and scapegoating.

Christian organisations, on the other hand have high ideals of behaviour which, as we have outlined, tend to produce hypocrisy. In this context they are less likely to admit to their enemies and therefore to actually love them, even though they want to love their enemies. This gap between wanting to love and actually loving enemies is best maintained through habits which distance ourselves from them.

Standards are higher and so is hypocrisy. Overt brutality is lower (most of the time). Standards for leaders are higher and this creates its own problems. A protestant pseudo-solution is to operate as if divine grace lowers standards and is somehow an opposite to the christian life (“works”). Lowered standards are expected to reduce hypocrisy. This too produces inertia – perhaps more superficial and cosy than brutal and fearful. The primary problem that presents itself is lack of truly formative discipleship – the self-containment of the middle-classes.

Christianity claims to restore to us a good messiah and to do so in a way that restores us to that messiah, and so to (at least the beginnings of) a world without scapegoating. The questions I am asking surround how those claims might play out in the diverse context of church and social housing.

To become a Christian is to become a follower, not just in intention but practice and in the depth of our existence: in our emotions, in our aesthetics, in our habits. Disciples, like good wine and cheese, take time. Good leadership requires good follower-ship and that also takes time. Such timeful formation happens in community where our deep desires are formed. Listening to sermons is not enough. Unless we intentionally share the practices of following Jesus in an intimate context where others are allowed into our lives we will remain idealistic hypocrites.

It may well be important for leadership to be formal (ie. by recognised office) but it will always be necessary for it to be informal (earned respect which imitates those who imitate Christ). With our heritage we will always need to struggle against models which assume that disciples (and in turn leaders) are relatively self-contained brains on sticks (in the memorable phrase of J K A Smith).

Perhaps where this reflection on my own context leaves me is with two stereotypical types of community: the one that has a Messiah they don’t really follow and the other, for lack of a Messiah, constantly manufactures scapegoats.

Judgement begins with the family of God. Out of the integrity of our discipleship we will make disciples of all nations. It is only as judgement begins with the people of God that Jesus-followers are pruned to be witnesses. Meanwhile, as I frantically mix my metaphors, we hope for a unity of love, not simply in another world but born here and now.

2 thoughts on “Messiahs and Scapegoats: a reflection on discipleship and community – by Bruce Hamill

  1. Bruce I’d love to see a strong conversation in the church on ‘actual’ discipleship. The contrasts you make stemming from your experience both in social housing and in the church are powerful. I like your conclusion! ‘Judgement begins with the family of God. Out of the integrity of our discipleship we will make disciples of all nations. It is only as judgement begins with the people of God that Jesus-followers are pruned to be witnesses. ‘


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