Slaves as scapegoats

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John Hammond
Slavery existed in Africa long before the transatlantic trade to the Americas or even the trans-Saharan trade to North Africa, and it continued - much more vigorously - long after the act of Abolition in 1807. The numbers of victims of the North African and Atlantic trades alone, including those killed in the raids and dying in transit approach 13 millions. Why, it might be asked, did Africans enslave so many millions of their brothers? The answer is that they didn’t, they enslaved their enemies (1). Most slaves were prisoners of war, victims of conflict between neighbouring states, and there were also criminals, adulterers or witches sold on by their communities as a punishment for their crimes. Slaves were also purchased for sacrifice. Slaves were outsiders in the communities that owned them and slavery was the means of denying to aliens the rights and privileges enjoyed by members of society. Slaves have no rights, only obligations. They are the property of their masters, as is their production, their sexuality and their reproduction. The link between ethnic difference and the deprivation of normal rights is a hallmark of all African slavery, clearly evident in the North African and New-World trade as well as in the ancient sub-Saharan origins. Typically, slaves were taken from their birthplace to a distant land where their language, physical characteristics and cultural memory marked them as outsiders. From the 8th century this separation could mean crossing the Sahara, and from the 16th, the Atlantic. For Muslim traders Sub-Saharan Africans were outsiders who could be enslaved because they were pagans, the key issue was religion. Jews and Christians as peoples of the Book could not be enslaved. For the European traders and the colonists of the Americas alien colour and culture made Africans abnormal and so fit for slavery.
Today, two centuries after the Abolition Act, though we have some understanding of the misery and privations of the countless victims, the morality of the perpetrators is still difficult to grasp. Because the Slave Trade now is so abhorrent we cannot comprehend how so many of our recent ancestors could be involved or find it acceptable. What was it about the culture and psyche of so many otherwise relatively pious Christians and Muslims, which let them treat millions of Africans so abominably? To put it another way, how is it that people (we) are able, at times, to suspend appropriate behaviour towards others and instead treat them with cruelty and a callous disregard for their needs and feelings? The work of Rene Girard and in particular his understanding of scapegoat can, I think, begin to provide an answer.
For Girard the scapegoat mechanism, whereby an individual is punished to alleviate the sufferings of the group, is a “generative principal” (2). By this he means it is not an isolated incident but a universal phenomenon at the heart of all cultural and social development, including religion. In a society facing a crisis, either from an external cause or from internal conflict, an individual or minority will be singled out and blamed by the majority for the distress and fear they suffer. The victims are not in fact responsible for the community’s ills but they attract the hostility of the crowd because they bear the “victimary signs”, characteristics, physical or cultural, that set them apart from the majority. At a point of extreme tension the violence in the community overflows in the lynching or expulsion of the scapegoat. The collective killing channels the violence outside the group and so releases tension and restores, at least temporally, a sense of well being and order. The phenomenon of the scapegoat is a familiar one, common in everyday speech, and understood to be of Biblical origin. But for Girard the mechanism is not derived from a specific culture, Judaism, but is common to, and in fact generative of, all cultures. Faced with a crisis human beings start looking for scapegoats.
The evidence, Girard claims, is all around us, ancient and also very modern. He provides examples of scapegoating in the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and Shakespeare. Religious rituals are said to be re-enactments or ancient murders, evident particularly in animal sacrifice where the sheep or goat is the surrogate victim for what once was a human sacrifice. Myths are an elaborate retelling of the same violent events, often in a form that sanitises the grisly reality and conceals the identity of the perpetrators.
When surveying the victims of collective persecutions Girard notes the characteristic accusations made against the victims. They are accused of violent crimes, particularly against a society’s icons, the king, symbols of authority, and children. There are also accusations of sexual and religious crimes. These are crimes that attack the foundations of the cultural order and so the accused can be seen as responsible for the current social disintegration and therefore justly punished. Because society cannot get to the real cause of its malaise it turns its violence on the scapegoat as a means of purging itself of those elements that corrupt and undermine it. It is accusations of these heinous crimes: ritual infanticide, religious profanation, incestuous relationships, bestiality, that are levelled at the early Christians by the Romans, by medieval Christendom against the Jews and witches, and by Fascism against Jews, Roma and Homosexuals.
In addition to the cultural and religious criteria there are the physical disabilities can also serve as ‘victimary signs’: sickness, madness, genetic deformities and injuries that can set people apart and make them vulnerable to blame and collective violence. But mostly it is ethnic and religious minorities or any poorly integrated or merely distinct group that are likely to be at risk. In fact societies that do not subject their minorities to discrimination or even persecution are an exception to the rule.
If the scapegoating mechanism is as ingrained and ubiquitous as it appears then it is most unlikely that alien minorities, especially those encountered through violence, will be treated decently. Which brings us back to the Slave Trade. African slaves as we saw earlier were outsiders: cultural, religious and ethnic minorities for whoever owned them. They are bearers of Girard’s ‘victimary signs’ They were aliens, taken in war by other states and kept in submission by violence and the threat of violence. The extent to which they were seen as alien religious and ethnic minorities grew further as they were transported to the Muslim or Christian societies across the Sahara or the Atlantic. Bearing the signs of victims they can be treated as slaves, mostly domestic and military in Muslim North Africa, mostly on the new plantations in the Christian Americas.
In the light of an evident cultural disposition toward scapegoating perhaps our earlier question (premised for us now perhaps on a religious conviction of the equality of all before God and underscored by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) should be recast. We should not be asking “Why were our Slaving ancestors so morally bankrupt?” for that might be making scapegoats of them. Rather, we should be asking who are the new victims of our need to scapegoat? Who today are the bearers of the victimary signs, and what are the social and economic conflicts or sexual anxieties for which they will be blamed? Which minorities are being lynched, expelled or economically exploited? Whose energies and bodies are being appropriated because they are vulnerable and ethnically or culturally different? (3). Then we could go on to ask, following the fine examples of the Abolitionists two centuries ago, what can we do about these new forms of a very old violence?
In the Classroom

Below are two processes that might be used in the classroom. The first, uses a science fiction short story to unpack scapegoating, the second uses a guided meditation to clarify issues of action and commitment.

1. The Scapegoat.

The unmasking of the scapegoat mechanism is difficult for two reasons. First the victims are blamed for a current malaise and so can appear to deserve their punishment: “They take our jobs and houses”, “They carry disease”, “They abuse our children”. Second, we, or our students, may well be caught up in the process and so unable to distance ourselves sufficiently to see what is going on.

The investigation therefore needs to be somewhat elliptical. We need to start with an example in another place and time before bringing the study nearer home. It is here that literature can help. One of Girard’s literary sources is Dostoyevsky. Interestingly it is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that is the inspiration of Ursula le Guin’s science fiction short story, The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas. (4)
The story shows us an example of scapegoating that it is impossible not to find repulsive. She describes Omelas, a beautiful city full of happy, wise people. “To make the place more believable” she describes one more thing: an imprisoned child kept in misery. We learn it has to be there because all the happiness of the many rests on the suffering of this one child. Later, we hear, amazingly, that there are some who walk away from Omelas.
The story pulls the reader into the world of Omelas and makes us consider the contradiction at its heart. Students who have used the story are drawn to identify and re-examine classic cases of scapegoating and begin to see marginalized groups in a new light. The rationalising of blame is explored and historical examples examined. But perhaps the most profound aspect of the exercise is the story’s ability to bring into focus the uncomfortable reality of one’s own blindness and collusion in the scapegoating process.

Suggestion for use.
The story is suitable for trainees and pupils years 9 –13. Perhaps lower depending on the nature of group and how the story is used.

The text needs editing slightly for most groups. The long (two page) second paragraph can be omitted without losing the central thrust of the story.

Context/Curriculum area: RE; PSE; Citizenship
The group needs to be read, or to read the story.
The story works with a wide range of audiences. But responses and further exploration will need facilitating in ways appropriate to particular groups. The following suggestions for lead questions will need adapting and developing through paired or group discussion, writing, poetry, art and drama.
Some tasks and Questions

  • Provide a new title for the story.

  • Where is Omelas?

  • Omelas is “Salem, O(regan)” spelled backwards. Can you think of other cities (spelled backwards) that could replace it?

  • Describe further the cell and the child.

  • Is Omelas more believable with the imprisoned child or without it? Why?

  • Imagine you are an official showing the child to a visiting group. Some one asks you why it has to be there. What do you say?

  • Why do they believe the child has to be there? If you visited Omelas what would you say to convince them that the child should be set free?

  • Can you identify any Omelas free zones in our world? Where?

  • Where are they going, those who walk away?

  • You meet two walkers on their way out of Omelas. Ask them where they are going and why? What do they say? Do you think they are heroes or cowards? Do you want to go with them? Why?

2. Clarifying Commitment
Context/Curriculum area: RE; PSE; Citizenship
To perceive the injustice in a case of scapegoating is unlikely to change it. To work for change, like the Abolitionists, for years, against entrenched interests and apathy requires great courage and stamina. The gifts of the Ancestors is a process devised by Johanna Macey (5) to assist reflection and engagement with a challenging issue. The process is basically a walking meditation on elements of the bad and good news of human history. Having made a mental journey to the dawn of humankind through the failures, madness and cruelties of history, we are brought forward to the present via the courage, wisdom and generosity of inspirational figures.
The content of the process will need to be rewritten for a specific focus and for particular groups. The version here, slightly adapted, was used with RE trainees. Ideally, it requires a largish safe space, like a school hall or drama studio and needs two or three additional facilitators (depending on the size of the group) as well the leader who provides the main commentary.

For participants who are comfortable with it, the walking meditation is important as it adds to the sense of a journey. However it will not be appropriate for all groups and so instead the exercise could be done seated, following perhaps an initial stilling exercise.

For many groups the content will need substantial simplification and shortening but should still include their own history, parents and grandparents, and then dip into several broad historical epochs on the way to and from the origins of human culture. Any version of an ancestral line is going to be culturally specific and so the range of events and characters in the commentary will need to be broad enough to include participants from a range of cultural origins.

Receiving the Gifts of the Ancestors
We see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants. If we are to face and respond to the challenges of the present we need to take stock of the gifts from our forbears.

During the first part of the process as we regress down the centuries we walk backwards with closed eyes, anticlockwise around the room, our hands at our sides, turned back. At the dawn of human history we pause before retracing our steps, walking clockwise, with eyes still closed and hands now turned forward to receive the gifts of the ancestors. Group facilitators will ensure there are no physical dangers.

We begin our journey by retracing our steps back from the early years of the 3rd millennium through the beginnings of our own teaching career, seeing the places we have worked, our colleagues, the pupils we have taught.

We go back through our own training and HE., and beyond to our own schooling and into our infancy, and to our birth. And beyond to the lives of our parents, their meeting, and into their childhood, and back through their births to the lives of our grandparents.

With these lives we span the last century with its staggering advances in science and technology, its social aspirations, its terrible loss of life in two world wars, the Holocaust, the use and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the famines and grain mountains, the civil wars and ethnic cleansings.

Beyond that century we see the cities of the industrial revolution, the factories and mines and the extremes of wealth and poverty.

And further back into the European colonisation of Africa and India, and beyond into the centuries of the slave trade.

Earlier still there are the countless victims of the witch trials and the years of religious wars when the newly formed states fought each other for territory and the gospel.

Further back into the era of the middle ages and the building of the great cathedrals, a feudal society and a time of famines and the plagues.

Back into the time of the Roman Empire with its arenas and slaves, its wars of conquest and the persecution of the Jews and the new religion of the followers of Christ.

Further back, through the brilliance of the Greek arts and culture and Alexander’s wars of conquest across the middle east and into India.

Five centuries beyond the Common Era, to the rise of a Buddhism in India and Confucianism in China.

And deeper into history to the ancient civilisation of the Indus valley, to the peoples who built the great megaliths and stone circles across northern Europe..

Further back to the beginnings of agriculture, the domestication of animals and beyond to those hunter gatherer peoples who a hundred thousand years ago ritually buried their dead, and mastered the use of fire.

And finally, back perhaps a million years to our first ancestors as they wandered in small clans out of the African savannah to begin their colonisation of the globe.

Let us pause and wait before we begin our journey forward down the millennia. Let us turn our hands to the front so as we walk down the ages we can receive the countless gifts of invention and spiritual insight, imagination and courage that will inspire us to make a contribution to our own age.
As we walk forward we see the amazing technical ingenuity and leaps of imagination with which the first men and women began to search for food, create tools and make fire.

We see the vibrant life in the cave paintings which depicted animals and humans as elements in the great web of life, and the invention of the first musical instruments and later the spear and bow.

We witness the telling of the great stories of origin that gave place and meaning to human life in the vastness of creation.

Later, with the success of agriculture, human populations grow and new gods supplant the worship of the great mother.

In India the Vedas are composed to guide sacrificial rites and in Mesopotamia Sarah and Abraham are chosen to be the forbears of a nation.

In Egypt kings are mummified for the afterlife and a small band of slaves under Moses escape for freedom and a promised land that was to shape all the Semitic faiths.

In the 6th century before the Common Era the Buddha leaves the security of his father’s palace to search for a meaningful life in the face of sickness, old age and death.

Later in Greece the exercise of systematised rational thought culminates in the works of Plato and Aristotle.

As we enter the Common Era the followers of Jesus fired by the experience of his resurrection preach a message of love and a revolutionary identification with the poor and the victim.

In 6th Arabia the visions of Muhammad give rise to Islam as a religious and cultural influence which will transform the Mediterranean world, remake the science and philosophy of Europe and bring millions world wide to the conviction that there is no God but God.

Through the centuries of the Middle Ages the Celtic Church, then new monastic foundations under the leadership of Hildegard and Theresa, Bernard and Francis promote prayer and scholarship and work for the poor and the sick through their dedication to poverty, chastity and obedience.

In the 16th century under the inspiration of Luther and Calvin the Reformers seek to maintain the purity of the gospel and foster a new sense of individual responsibility before God.

In northern India a new religion emerges from Hindu and Islamic roots inspired by the life and teachings of Guru Nanak.

Moving into the 17th and 18th centuries we see a among the Quakers and Free Churches a new awareness of pacifist, communitarian and socially committed ideals that will later vitally contribute to the abolition of the Slave Trade.

At the same time the faith and careful reasoning of the early scientists launch the growth of modern science which will provide new insights into the nature and origins of the universe and promise a new ways of combating disease and hunger.

Among the upheavals and wars of the modern world there are the reformers and healers, the Pankhursts and Florence Nightingales, and Marx and Freud as the prophets of social and psychological insight.

Among the horrors and lynching of modern racism from the Holocaust to the Ku Klux Klan we find the awesome courage of the Ann Franks, the Maximillian Kolbe and the Martin Luther Kings.

Approaching our own time we see Mother Theresa attending to the needs of the destitute, and, against the uprooting of the ancient culture of Tibet, there is the smiling, gentle wisdom of the Dalai Lama.

We remember too the gifts and achievements of our own grandparents, our parents and friends, all of which have helped shape and inspire our lives.
Let us pause again for a moment, before we move forward into the future, towards the end of this present century. In a classroom a child is writing a letter. This child, a future distant relative, a great, great grandchild perhaps, is writing a letter to you their distant and deceased family member about how your work in the early years of the 21st century made an important contribution in redressing the ignorance and injustice of your time. The part you played helped change history, leaving them a better, more harmonious world.

What does the child write? What is it about your work that will make such a difference?

There is now an opportunity to write the letter.


  1. See Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery CUP 2000

  2. See Girard, Rene, Violence and the Sacred John Hopkins University Press 1977, The Scapegoat John Hopkins University Press 1986

Golsan, Richard J. Rene Girard and Myth Routledge 2002

  1. For documentation on contemporary forms of slavery see

  2. In le Guin, Ursula The Winds Four Quarters Victor Gollance 1975

  3. Macy, Joanna and Young-Brown, Molly Coming Back to Life New Society Publishers 1998

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