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  • Can Religious Culture Protect Society’s Sacrificial Victims?
  • Leann Snow Flesher (bio) and Jennifer Wilkins Davidson (bio)

The hate crime perpetrated by a twenty-one-year-old white man at “Mother” Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last year left nine innocent people dead and a nation reeling in shock and pain.

It is no secret that our nation is riddled with prejudice, not the least of which is its pernicious discrimination against its own African American citizens. But mere prejudice cannot explain the degree of such atrocities as the one that occurred in South Carolina. The horror of the Mother Emanuel AME church slaughter reflects entrenched, systemic structures that have too often led to unrestrained and unwarranted violence against a group of people who have been deemed sacrificial.

We ask if religion can save society’s sacrificial victims. We believe the answer to this question is not a simple yes, but that we are also compelled to ask how.

Sacrificial Victims

René Girard has noted that societies consistently designate substitutionary sacrificial victims to serve in the stead of highly valued perpetrators. He goes on to state that in some societies entire categories of human beings are systematically reserved for sacrificial purposes in order to protect other categories. Girard has concluded that only the introduction of some transcendental quality—such as ritual purification ordained by God—can succeed in bypassing the human propensity toward vengeance and thus stay the violence. In other words, according to Girard, “society is seeking to deflect upon a relatively indifferent victim, a ‘sacrificable’ victim, the violence that would otherwise be vented on its own members, the people it most desires to protect.”

Although the word “sacrifice” owes its origin to the word “sacred,” there is nothing sacred about the way blacks have come to be the sacrificial victims of American culture. It is the design of a secular, systemic oppression. Many are the stories of black people, especially black men, being wrongly accused by whites of raping, stealing, or murdering, in order to satisfy the need for retribution in a white hegemonic culture, all the while protecting the perpetrating, falsely accusing community member and, by extension, protecting the entire white community from the discomfort of taking accountability for the sacrifice.

This methodical sacrifice occurs in systemic as well as personal ways. For example, the recent emphasis in the news of individual white police officers killing black men, women, and children is simultaneously personal and political. It may well be that the individual officers who commit extrajudicial murders are substituting their black victims for some other “enemy” that is not readily available. For example, many of our current police officers are former military who have been trained to kill the Other, and some police officers carry within their being a certain rage related to their own experience of inequity, often class-based, related to their position in society. Consequently, we must recognize and acknowledge that these police officers understand black bodies to be sacrificial, having been designated by society as legitimate substitutionary victims for whom there is no risk of vengeance.

Complicating this notion further is the lack of protection and state retribution for black communities that have been abandoned to inadequate police investigations. As Jill Leovy observes in her book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this more than anything is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.

Leovy provides numerous examples of both informal and formal political policies from Tennessee to Mississippi, from Philadelphia and New York to Los Angeles, that serve to limit police protection and involvement in black communities wracked by violent deaths. She points out that this “lack of effective criminal justice” is anything but unintentional. A white-supremacist culture provides “inept, fragmented, [and] underfunded” investigative efforts that are “contorted by a variety of ideological, political, and racial sensitivities,” and turns a blind eye to the pain of endemic murder that occurs in black communities. A chillingly cold-hearted example, Leovy writes, is...


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