Years ago I read a book called The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers. The story was about a man in an Appalachian village, known as the “sin-eater,” whose role in the community was to take on the sins of the dead so that they could enter heaven. The sin-eater was chosen by lot casting and then banished from the community except for those times when he visited the homes of the newly dead to perform the necessary rituals. The story was disturbing and heartbreaking, but what made it stick in my mind was reading the author’s note where I learned that this fictional book was based on the actual practices of a religious community that had immigrated from Europe to the United States. It seems ludicrous that any group of people could believe such silly superstitions, but in reality they were merely performing a very literal and physical example of scapegoating which, consequently, is extremely common in human families, communities, and organizations.
The term “scapegoat” is old and originates from a command in the Old Testament book of Leviticus in which a priest is to lay hands on a goat to transfer the sins of the community onto it before the goat is either killed or sent into the wilderness, “escaping” with the community’s sins and giving them a fresh start. Though I knew of the concept, I had never thought much about it until my counselor casually mentioned how my family had been scapegoated in the missions community. After she said that I spent several weeks reading about scapegoating and trying to decide if she was right. I think she was, but I am not sure if that makes me feel any better.
(The following is my attempt to process what I’ve studied and to compare it with the events in our missions community in Bali in 2018. Luckily I kept a journal of the details and have 80 pages of single spaced notes. In the following section interspersed with my explanations of a scapegoating system are some of the events that I experienced and how I think they show that scapegoating was likely occurring. These events will be italicized for clarity.)
Scapegoating occurs when a group unfairly selects an individual or group to bear the responsibility of a conflict or failure in the group. The one blamed is called the “scapegoat,” and the innocence or guilt of the scapegoat is of little consequence. What matters in a scapegoating scenario is that the group achieves its unarticulated objectives of cohesion and is able to release anxiety about the problems within the group by allowing everyone (except for the scapegoat obviously) to be absolved of wrongdoing.
In a scapegoating community there is something true about the group or the members in it that they are simply not ready to face. To quote one researcher, “[b]y focusing on and ultimately getting rid of the scapegoat, an organization temporarily escapes having to face the reality of what is happening within the organization, until the scapegoat is gone and the process begins all over again with someone else.” The recurring nature of scapegoating is typical, which makes sense because if the issues really are with the group, they remain after the scapegoat is gone.
Not long after we resigned from our missions organization, I spoke to another woman living in Indonesia. She had been there for decades and is well-respected within the community. I didn’t know her well, but a friend who knew us both suggested that speaking to her may be of some comfort to me. For a couple of hours we spoke, and she told me her own story. She too had resigned from my organization before joining another one. Our stories were incredibly alike. Then she told me that there were others. Several others. Many had made similar attempts at addressing the same problems in the organization, and many of them were strong, vocal females. All of them tried to challenge those in authority over them just like I did.
For decades the cycle has been happening in our region with the same set of problems. At one point a different friend who has also been in our organization for decades said that she knew as soon as we challenged our leaders that we would leave the field. She said, “That’s what always happens in this organization. The organization backs the highest ranking leader. Every time… If a bus and a motorcycle are in an accident, it doesn’t matter if the motorcycle was driving correctly or not. The bus wins and the motorcycle gets creamed.”
The lack of malice in scapegoating communities was probably the hardest thing to discover in my study on the phenomenon. It would be more comfortable to believe that those who hurt my family so badly were awful, terrible people intent on destruction. However, those doing the scapegoating are, in their own way, trying to do the best for the whole community. They operate on the principle that sometimes one must be sacrificed for the sake of the group. They are completely incapable of empathy for the scapegoat because they are trying to do the right thing for themselves and for the group. Their challenge is to do the mental gymnastics necessary to believe that the scapegoat doesn’t experience suffering (by “othering” them) or that they simply earned their consequences.
The night before we left, one of the few missionaries who was still speaking to us at all came by to say goodbye. I remember how she looked me in the eye and told me that what was happening to my family “had nothing to do with sexism… you really brought this on yourself.” A former friend from the community told my husband that he thought that there was nothing wrong with me but that we really weren’t a good fit in the community. It was better for everyone that we left. He wasn’t the only one. Several people said that it was “too bad” what had happened to us but we needed to be an example of how serious it is when someone undermines authority in the community. They knew they were punishing us, but they believed that they were also protecting the unity of the community by doing it.
While one can look at the group or individual that does the scapegoating, it is also interesting to look at the typical scapegoat too. Scapegoats are nearly always someone who is least like the ingroup. Being assigned the role of scapegoat is never explicit, but is regularly precipitated by a meaningful event where the scapegoat draws attention both to their lack of conformity and the issues or problems that the group wants to avoid acknowledging or when the scapegoat does what group members would never consciously dream of doing but unconsciously wish they could. There is a theory that suggests that scapegoats are sometimes willing victims who feel guilty about not fitting into the social norms of the group.
In January, a lot of minor events came to a head at a meeting of 15 women in our area at a conference for our organization. I told them that I was really struggling with feeling ostracized because I was so different from the others in our area. I told them that I was concerned by the inability of our area to have healthy conflict and that I had observed people run away or refuse to engage with one another when they disagreed. And I was weary and frustrated by what I believed was systemic sexism in the organization that was being ignored (despite efforts to bring it up) by the local leadership as well as the leadership at the top levels. There was an immediate effort to shut me down. There was no attempt to engage with anything that I had said, but I was harshly reprimanded for saying upsetting things and causing disunity.
There have been a number of empirical studies on scapegoating in which the entire dynamic has played out in various groups and has been documented. Some interesting observations are that attempting to draw the ingroup’s attention to the scapegoating process while it is occurring usually makes the scapegoating accelerate because the need for the scapegoat to be expelled is exacerbated. A common early point in the scapegoating process according to one study over several scapegoating case studies is a “a verbal attack that was directed at a single individual who was only defended by herself. The verbal attacks were commonly you-type statements which took the form of interpretations of behavior attributing negativity to them: ‘you are manipulative, seductive, defensive.'” The reasons given in this verbal attack became the rationale for the progressing of scapegoating. Most interesting was that the scapegoats maintained composure to the point of the researcher noting that they seemed like “willing victims” because they “never responded with anger and rarely counterattacked or interrupted.” In fact, the scapegoats used “I” statements (a healthy conflict pattern) to attempt to defend themselves rather than engaging with the unhealthy conflict styles of their accusers.
When I read about this study, I actually laughed. The nonsensical finally made sense! For an entire year I have struggled to understand the hysteria around me when I seldom lost my composure, listened to the cruelest things said to my face and behind my back without arguing, and intentionally engaged in what I know was constructive communication styles. It seemed bizarre that I was presented in the community as if I was some kind of monster with magical powers of destruction. It never made any sense that listening, being empathetic, and intentionally choosing kindness and hope seemed to make things worse rather than better.
In our case, the event that was the entry point for the scapegoating narrative began a few days after the women’s meeting in January. We ended up sitting across a table from our bosses and their boss where the gaslighting began in the form of “you are not safe for the community, you are a bad leader, you are destructive and disruptive and arrogant and and and…” A lot was said, and I can see how those things set the narrative, and no matter how well I was able to respond, the scapegoating process had begun. Responding graciously ironically fueled the fire.
I think it’s pretty clear that my counselor was correct in her assessment of the situation. I was certainly the furthest member from the ingroup core, a non-conformist, and a vocal one at that. The scapegoating experience precisely mirrored those in empirical studies, and the only reasoning that we were offered when we were fired were vague references to “contributing to lack of unity” and that we had aired the organization’s dirty laundry by telling our supporters that we had been struggling with trying to confront what we saw as dysfunction in the organization. About 80% of the community stopped speaking to us within a month of the event in January even though we did not leave the Bali until July. Almost no one actually spoke to us about the things that we were trying to address or asked us why we decided to leave. I believe that when the narrative was set by the leadership, the community found it easier to believe what was said because it absolved them of responsibility for any of the issues I had brought up. In fact, they were able to believe that these things weren’t real at all.
Or maybe the community really has the problems that I identified in the January meeting. My points were that the community:
* Ostracizes non-conforming members. The entire first half of 2018 for my family was proof of that. We were shunned by the vast majority of the community.
* Runs from conflict rather than engaging in it in a healthy way. Over and over we offered to sit down with people, to talk it out, to agree to disagree, and even to simply say goodbye so that we (and our children) could have healthy closure. The conflicts were never resolved, and instead we were removed and accused of being the ones unwilling to reconcile and causing disunity.
* Engages in systemic sexism. The stories for this one are for another post, but the fact that nearly identical conversations as mine were happening a decade ago with the top leadership with little measurable change in the way women are treated on the field shows that this too is a reality.
Rather than facing the possibly of these community issues, our coworkers in Bali chose to blame me for the discomfort that was being felt when those issues were named. The same person that had experienced similar problems in our organization told me, “You backed them into the corner. Either they had to engage with what you said or they had to get rid of you.” That is the very definition of a scapegoat.
There were actually a number of units, a small handful in our region and a few in higher organizational leadership across the globe, who reached out to tell us that they saw what was happening to us, felt terrible about it, and thought it was wrong. However, they either never offered to speak on our behalf or specifically said that they didn’t see the point because they didn’t believe they could change anything. In many ways is harder for me to accept this and forgive them than it is for me to forgive the community itself. Scapegoaters by definition are unconsciously doing harm. I hate that, but I can understand it. But I can’t understand being conscious of harm being done to someone and being unwilling to do anything. The tagline in my blog is “Not to speak is to speak,” and the silent complicity speaks volumes to me. Why was I not worth standing up for?
In closing, I want to acknowledge three particular sets of friends who did stand up for us in a big and deeply meaningful way. When the first set heard that we had been fired, they immediately stepped down from their leadership position in the organization in protest because they refused to be a part of a leadership team where that was okay. I cried when they texted to let us know because I was so grateful that someone saw us and was willing to say publically that they opposed what they were witnessing playing out in the community. These friends left the field themselves a few months later. A second was a member of the organization in a different part of the world. She went to bat asking questions and trying to push the higher level leadership to look into things. Her efforts resulted in nothing but walls and excuses, but her willingness to get her hands dirty on our behalf was a gift. The last was a close friend who showed up for us in a million ways. I know he would have made a loud stink about it all, but we asked him to lay low and not get lumped in with us in order to pick up the pieces of the ministries that we were leaving behind. He did just that. He left our organization last month. I don’t have adequate words for how much the presence and words and tangible actions of these friends meant to our family. It made all the difference.
For reference and more information, see the following: