March 20, 2009

Joaquin and the Scapegoat Impulse

We love scapegoats - any place, thing, idea, or person we can hang our sins upon and say, There! Look well, and witness both sin and sinner.

We do this, of course, because it's human behavior: built in, hard-wired, inscribed on the collective DNA. Nothing we can do will ever adequately scrub it out. Sin is not local, not "in here"; it is forever at arm's length, in the heart of the other. Rene Girard:
The creature that excited fury is abruptly replaced by another, chosen only because it is vulnerable and close at hand.
"The creature that excited fury." Usually, that's us.

Joaquin Phoenix is the latest in the long pantheon of celebrities to stumble publicly and suffer the mantle of Recent Scapegoat. Some have speculated that he's busily pulling off a stunt with his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, who's filming the spectacle, and that at some point the gag will be revealed for what it is - a one-man kayfabe in the vein of Andy Kaufman and Jim Lawler.

I hope that's true, because the alternative looks pretty brutal. I've seen the Letterman clips a few times now. My sense is that the photogs and TMZ'ers are sharpening their longest knives as we speak.

Christian compassion cannot end with celebrities just because we think they're out of touch with reality, or because we're jealous of them. They are, after all, people, and God requires mercy and compassion - longsuffering compassion and companioning.

Not to say that Hollywood doesn't excel at creating alternate realities, and not that people aren't complicit in their own undoing; or that showing compassion requires us to substitute one reality for another. If Mr. Phoenix is really in a state of need (either that or he's one of the better actors of his day, and is shortly to pull aside the veil of this conceit), then he certainly helped himself along the way, and in that he's no role model.

But godly compassion requires that we not laugh when we see another in pain. (Again, unless he's joking, in which case we all get a chuckle later on, but it'll be guilt-laced laughter.) We don't pile on or idly gossip.

Bottom line: This man is our brother, and to make him a scapegoat is to take the cheap way out.

We have not so learned Christ.

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