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Mopping with Dirty Water

October 31, 2011

On Saturday, a dear friend and I went to see the Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry musical, Parade, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. She had an interesting insight at intermission about the formation of mobs, which set me thinking along the lines of vengeance cycles and scapegoats a la René Girard.

In very short summary, Girard tells us that ever since Adam ate the fruit and Cain murdered Abel, blood cries out for blood. Murder demands in-kind reprisal and the reprisal demands in-kind reprisal and so on and so forth, really until there’s no one left to kill. If the guilty party cannot be distinguished or the whole of the society seems to be at fault somehow, the situation demands a scapegoat, someone on whom the society could place the blame, then expel or kill, and be done with the matter. The obvious example of this is the Jewish practice on the Day of Atonement, from which we get the term scapegoat. But year after year, goat after goat, it is never enough. All of this, of course, points to the need for Christ, the God-Man, who was both like us and not like us and was therefore both worthy and able to take our sins upon himself and, by His death and Resurrection, do away with them and the need for scapegoating forever.

But what does the scapegoat have to do with Parade? The scapegoat mechanism makes Leo’s Jewishness not the basis for anti-Semitism, but a mob’s convenient excuse for violence. The real issue at hand is that a sweet, innocent little girl has been murdered and her death demands blood in kind. Due to the severity of good ol’ fashioned racism at that time, the prosecuting attorney, Hugh Dorsey, notes, “Hanging another negro ain’t enough this time. We gotta do better.” This scapegoat must be more than that because all scapegoats must be a twisted sort of replacement for Christ. Just as Christ, our Scapegoat, had to be like us in that He was man and unlike us in that He was God, so this mob’s scapegoat had to be “one of their own” but “other” enough that they, as a culture, didn’t have to bear the burden of guilt.

Leo Frank fit the bill. He was white; he was successful; he had black servants and a good Southern belle for a wife. But, unlike all the professed Christians around him, he did not believe in Christ as the Messiah. If a fellow professed Christian man owned the same factory and found himself in the same position, the mob would have dug the the otherness out of him and persecuted him for it. Was he a Yankee? Japanese? Muslim? Maybe he was Southern, too, but he had a limp or never smiled or wasn’t the kind of man whow would wave at you on the street. It’s not Leo’s Jewishness itself that matters to this mob, but that his Jewishness is other enough that the little girl’s blood can be avenged while their own hands remain clean.

The terrible irony here is that in striving to keep the blood off their hands, they only succeeded in bloodying themselves further in the lynching of an innocent man. As your mother will certainly tell you, mopping with dirty water only makes the floor look worse.

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