Why do gossip magazines make money? Why are we enthralled by scandals and the disgrace of various public figures? A part of it has to be the feeling of justification we get from it. These supposedly great people ( successful politicians, worshiped musicians and actors, pastors of megachurches) who have achieved all these great things, have sinned and fallen from the heights they achieved. The spell of their greatness has been broken and they are exposed to be merely human or worse. If even they are broken and immoral, then we feel better about ourselves. Their disgrace produces a feeling of satisfaction. It draws us in. We want to cherish the momentary release this provides from the burden of shame that most of us have to some degree or another. But realize that as you’ve done this, you’ve just indulged in a form of scapegoating. You’ve justified yourself through another’s punishment. You’ve accepted yourself in a moral sense; you’ve declared yourself acceptable by the standards of morality, based on the retribution against someone else ( that actually has nothing to do with you). This identifies the motivation for the animal and human sacrifices that have been practiced by humanity in times gone by. What if all the “recreational outrage” is actually “recreational scapegoating”? This is inevitable in a more secular society since the measure of morality becomes not the standards of God, but merely how the rest of the people in society behave. Without God the only measure left for morality, the only source of social sanction and retribution becomes other people. The natural tendency then will be for people to measure themselves against the other people around them and not the transcendent demands of God. This encourages the idea that if I’m not worse than the average human being, I’m actually a “good person.” But it means no such thing. Morality is not determined by population statistics, and it is quite possible for whole societies to be horribly evil. How you compare to your peers as far as morality is concerned is completely inconsequential in determining whether you’re actually a good person.
Loving to Hate
It is interesting also how the disgrace of public figures is sometimes seen as a symbolic attack on the sin or wrongdoing itself. It is as though they become icons and symbols of their wrongdoing in the society at large. The social retribution against a single individual or a few individuals become the point of gravity for opposition to the sin itself. Perhaps the thinking is that if these powerful and influential figures can be held accountable by the society, then anybody can. In other words, it is the disgrace of these powerful figures for that sin which represents a victory over the wrongdoing in the society in general. But far from dispelling the scapegoat hypothesis, this proves it more fully. This admits that the public figures are in some sense being targeted for the sake of that particular sin in the whole society. They are effectively being seen as representatives of everybody else who does the wrong they’ve done.
Even if the people who suffer misfortune or punishment are not public figures, taking delight in their suffering is also something that is a part of the human condition. I think it has a similar source: a desire to justify ourselves through the destruction of others. Envy, jealousy, and more vague versions of schadenfreude, and the more obvious ones of unforgiveness and bitterness, are a part of the human condition. Sadism is not some rarity reserved for sexual deviants on the fringes of “mainstream” society. It resides in every human heart and expresses itself regularly, but with various disguises required for social acceptability. Unforgiveness and bitterness ( disguised as “justice”), irritability, quick temper and anger, gossiping and backbiting, reviling and the already discussed envy, all contain at least a hint ( and often much more than a hint) of pleasure or satisfaction in someone else’s pain. All of these vices also have a moral framework that they are based on. They require a notion of wrong. Anger and irritability are based on the belief that I’ve been wronged. Unforgiveness and envy are both based on a belief that I’ve been wronged or that an injustice has occurred ( and I’m the disadvantaged party). Backbiting, or malicious gossip, is based ( before it spirals out of control) on the idea that someone has done something wrong or are wrong in some way (at least in the mind of the accusers) and blame is directed at the person for it. The concept of blame is central to backbiting. Reviling has the same source. It is ironic that the worst and most horrific malice comes from our awareness of morality and the judgments we make in its name, from our knowledge of good and evil.
The idea of human sacrifice horrifies us today, but it used to be quite common. Many ancient texts ( including the Bible) contain an awareness of human sacrifice. There are frequent prohibitions in the Bible against human sacrifice with specific references to other gods ( most commonly Moloch, but also Baal), making reasonable the assertion that this was practiced by the surrounding cultures. We read in the Bible that the Israelites were forbidden to let their children “pass through the fires to Moloch.” (Leviticus 18:21)
This is confirmed by Greek and Roman sources, which also report that people within the same general region ( such as Carthage and Phoenicia) sacrificed their children to their gods. In the Iliad, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter for favourable winds to sail to Troy. Human sacrifice was practiced in India, Tibet, China and Japan. In India, humans were sacrificed to Kali ( the goddess of death) and Chamunda.
India also famously practiced Sati, or widow burning. In ancient Japan, the practice of Hitobashira involved burying people alive in the foundations of buildings as a sacrifice to the gods to prevent the building from being destroyed by natural disasters. Killing widows at the death of their husbands or forcing them to kill themselves was also practiced in China and people were sacrificed to the god Hebo.
Human sacrifice was practiced in pre-Christian Europe. Among pagan Celts, the Wicker man was a large effigy that was filled with human beings and then set on fire. Various “Bog Bodies” have been found throughout Europe, some of them are believed by scholars to be victims of ritual murder. These practices died out with the emergence of the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties, the conquests of Charlemagne around late 700 AD, and the consequent establishment of something like a precarious “Christian Europe” united by the Western Roman Church. Ancient South America is notorious for its horrific practices of human sacrifice in the Inca, Maya and Aztec civilizations. Archaeological discoveries in America and Canada suggest that human sacrifice was also practiced by the native peoples there. West Africa and some Pacific Islands are other known settings for human sacrifice in the past. Given the time period that has elapsed and the fact that human sacrifice was often ( though not only) practiced in preliterate societies, there are probably many other examples that we don’t even know about. In short, in the ancient world, the practice of human sacrifice seems common. Ritual murder is now seen as unacceptable in pretty much every society. So we are free of it. But maybe not what motivated it…
Man Looks at Outward Appearances, but the Lord…
The point of this is to show that the urge to single out people for punishment to justify ourselves, to find absolution or some sort of salvation for ourselves in another’s misfortune or destruction, seems universal. It is part of the human condition. When we look at the societies of our ancestors and at the history of humanity more generally, there can be a temptation to look upon the people in those societies as a sort of a different species. We want to think that we are not like them, that we are different in a fundamental way. The way people talk about those people and their horrid practices almost make it sound like we are completely removed from it, like we are an alien civilization watching the horrors of humanity from the perch of moral superiority. But we are no different from those people in terms of fundamental makeup. And looking at them with this moral arrogance prevents us learning from their wrongdoing. We and our societies will find ourselves practicing those horrors in different forms even while at the same time condemning them only in the forms they took with our ancestors. If you gain a sense of satisfaction and justification from the misfortune ( and perhaps even death?) of some disgraced and immoral public figure, are you that very different? Sure, you didn’t pull the trigger. You didn’t cause their misfortune. But do you like it? Perhaps you didn’t perform the act of slicing a ritualistic blade along their throat, but by taking satisfaction in their misfortune, you show yourself to be of like mind and motivation to someone who did such a thing in a previous society, or who watched it with pleasure or a sense of moral “satiety.” Perhaps you would say that you only take pleasure in the justice of it, in the fact that someone is being held accountable. Disguising what is clearly malice and sadism with moralistic concepts like justice is probably as old as human civilization. And it also is not surprising that sacrifice is often accompanied by a notion of moral balance, of evening the scales, of justice.
And if you like the spectacle of disgrace and humiliation, if you want it to happen to someone you dislike for whatever reason, it is fair and reasonable to say that you would have used the blade if it were socially acceptable to do so. Jesus tells us that if we hate our brother, we have already murdered and if we look on a woman with lustful intent, we have already committed adultery in our hearts (Matthew 5:21). As Dallas Willard explains, moral character is not simply what we do, but what we would do given the opportunity. Our external actions are guided and determined by many things that have nothing to do with morality, held in check as we are by the threat of social and legal sanction. The motives to avoid wrongdoing, and even the thought of it, are often purely self-interested. Efficient societies, with good rule of law, make it a matter of self-interest to avoid the worst wrongdoing. And people in these societies will then come to believe that this enforced morality is produced by their own moral excellence, when it actually has nothing to do with their individual moral characters. But what if all those sanctions and strictures of state and society sloughed away? What if we could be guaranteed immunity from any retribution, and truly deep down in our hearts believed this immunity, and there were only left our desires and will as an omnipotent self? What would we find in ourselves? Nothing good. That is why Jesus identified the real world of morality as the private sphere of intentions and motivations, not distorted by the pretenses and veneers of our social life and of external actions. And the God who watches and judges us sees not only our external actions but this nakedness of our souls. Or “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
It is also important to point out that the people in those societies which practiced human sacrifice believed that what they were doing was right and good. This is the only plausible interpretation of both the practice’s commonality and it’s establishment as norm in those societies. This conclusively disproves the notion that there is anything like a universal conscience or moral sense, which secular people like to think give them moral knowledge. Moral intuitions are not reliable indicators of morality. They are very malleable, especially when almost everyone around us are doing things a particular way.
Is there a solution?
What is it in us that feels such ravenous shame that we would be willing to kill for it, or at least to act with malice and nastiness? Why does our need to justify ourselves run so deep? We all know there is something wrong with us, that we need to be justified. We need absolution and we will apparently do almost anything to find it. Wherever the Christian gospel was preached, the practice of human sacrifice ceased. This has to do with many historical contingencies ( like colonialism) but it remains an interesting and significant fact. The point of gravity in the Christian gospel is a sacrifice, a final sacrifice willingly made by a sinless human being, God made flesh, who takes the punishment that we deserve upon himself. In place of sacrifices to please God, God offered himself as a sacrifice for us.
There is a final sacrifice that does truly justify us before God. And if you believe it, truly believe it, you will no longer have to scapegoat your idols, your friends, and your enemies. You will no longer have to justify yourself. The Atonement, the doctrine of Christianity that says that Jesus died for our sins, is often held against it by its critics. It’s association with human sacrifice means that it is condemned as barbaric and immoral. But it is also the centerpoint of Christianity. When Christianity is represented among world religions, it is normally done so with a cross, a reference to the Atonement. There are different ways of understanding the Atonement that might not be so objectionable to some people. But there is nothing barbaric in Jesus willingly offering up his life to save us from a just retribution, a just retribution which we know we deserve. What we get is a beautiful and unequaled act of selflessness, to serve both as example and as propitiation. By simply overlooking the sins of humanity God would be taking evil with insufficient seriousness. Can God simply brush aside all the horrible things we do to one another, the way we subvert God’s good designs, and rebel against our divinely ordained purpose? No, there needs to be a reckoning. And God shows both his commitment to the Good and to justice and his love for us by taking that reckoning upon Himself and freeing us to live and love Him fully.
My challenge to you, the reader, is to truly and honestly consider yourself. Are you guilty of these things I’ve spoken about? I’m guilty. Are you? And if you’ve recognized that you are. If you know that there truly is malice in your heart and that it can consume you, I want to invite you to give your life to Jesus, because he can set you free from your sin. He will give you a life of purpose and goodness, not determined by every new fashion of morality in the culture around you, but by a solid rock that is never shaken, a cornerstone for your new life. You only need to take his hand. You only need to open the door to him.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.