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Scapegoats of Christian Social Thought

In a post from over a year ago at Just Thomism, James Chastek writes about the use of scapegoats: “We use video media to make scapegoats that allow us to effortlessly gain power over things that are above us. I have two in mind: Hitler and the saint.” Chastek goes on to describe the reason why these two tropes are continually invoked, and it occurred to me that Christians (and others) often do precisely the same thing when it comes to economic systems and schools of thought.

“An adoring admirer once approached Mother Teresa and praised her as a saint,” Chastek writes. “Teresa’s response was blunt and very striking: you want me to be a saint so you don’t have to be.The implication here being that the saint-as-ideal often can be twisted into the saint-as-excuse. He continues, “[W]e make the saint into some other that has the job of being good for the rest of us.” Thus, we make the “saint” superhuman, righteous in a way that we ought not to expect of ourselves. Yet, of course, while an “other,” the saint is still one of us: “They sanctify the group (that is, us) while we get to go on living just as we have.”

The “Hitler” trope works similarly:

Hitler is made to be the ultimate out-group: he is racist, but we are not; he is genocidal, but we are not; he is a man in a strange country ranting in a strange language in front of frenzied crowds, but we live in our own country, speaking a familiar language, making our decisions without dramatic ranting in front of frenzied crowds. Hitler’s evil makes us infallibly good—all we have to do is think that all races are good, and we become good (since we aren’t Hitler). We can even consider these races in the abstract without having to think of concrete persons, much less love them. Just as the presence of the saint makes us holy by group membership without having to change anything about our lives, Hitler makes us holy by presence in a group we exclude from ourselves without having to change anything about our lives.

That is, because we, clearly, are not Nazis and certainly not Hitler, we aren’t evil, racist, and so on. Because we can point to someone immeasurably worse than ourselves—so we think—we justify ourselves and exempt ourselves from the hard work of righteousness. With these scapegoats in mind, think now of the many debates regarding Christian social thought.

There are champions of the free market who, it may be said, embrace “an answer searching for a question” mentality. What’s the socioeconomic problem? Who cares! Whatever it is, the answer is the market. The market is the saint who does the work of righteousness for them. Conversely, everyone knows the cause of all the world’s problems for such people: socialism, their Hitler.

The opposite can be said for some Christian socialists: what’s the problem? Capitalism is the cause! The pristine compassion and justice of socialism are the solution. And thank goodness we have them, because in that case we need be neither righteous nor wicked; we can be happily lukewarm.

Proponents of various “third way” systems, such as distributism, often have a similar problem, except they have two Hitlers: capitalism and socialism. Thank goodness they, however, are not like those who advocate such sinful systems, and if only somewhere in the world people would give their ideas a try, they would see it for the saintly system of social salvation that it is. Forget Benthamite calculus, all society needs are the right Chestertonian tweaks to make it the nearest embodiment of the kingdom to come.

Now, it is no secret that my own sympathies lie with advocates of the free economy. But I think applying Chastek’s tropes to social systems is a helpful caution to socially-conscious Christians, wherever their sympathies may lie, that there is a great danger in personifying our ideals. If we fail to pay attention to the concrete, we will end up no more than ideologues ourselves, failing to offer any concrete help to those in need, whether in the realm of public policy or to our neighbors within our various communities, both far and near.

In reality, as the German economist Walter Eucken observed, actually existing economies involve a web of various market forms, with up to 100 different possible combinations of various types of supply and demand (competitive, semi-oligopolistic, oligopolistic, semi-monopolistic, and monopolistic), each of which can be either open or closed. And market forms, of course, are only one of many aspects of an economy. Reality doesn’t often give us easy choices between good and evil but requires a high level of prudence and discernment. In other words, it requires hard work.

My point is not that every time a person advocates capitalism, socialism, or any other economic “-ism” that she must, therefore, be scapegoating. Rather the goal is to encourage my coreligionists (and myself) to get beyond the abstract.

Do you support capitalism? Socialism? Distributism? Something else? Wonderful. What does that look like among the mess of market forms that actually constitute the economy you participate in every day? Rather than criticizing those policies that fall short of your saintly ideal or align too closely with your Hitler, what ones constitute a first step in the right direction for you? And why? And what are the actual consequences, intended or otherwise, that may come about?

While there is a place for simply outlining one’s ideal, if we wish to actually do some good ourselves, we need to get our hands dirty in the mire of material reality. Gnostic scorn for the concrete and this-worldly boasts a broad road with a wide gate, but it is the narrow road of reality that leads to life; not only for ourselves, but for the common good; not just for this world, but for the kingdom of God.

So release the scapegoat into the wilderness, I say, and let’s steer the conversation toward what concrete ways we can better love our neighbors in our economic life in the future.


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  • Dan Hugger

    Nice reflection Dylan! Advocates for free markets are at their best when they are advocates for actual freer markets.

  • Great article.

    • Dylan Pahman


  • RoamingCatholic

    My own sympathies lie closest to distributism, but I grant your point that the kind of scapegoating you and Chastek describe so well remains a pitfall even (or perhaps especially) for proponents of “third-way” ideals.
    Where I actually started feeling defensive was at the end, where (ironically, I realize) I agree with you in theory but am chronically paralyzed in practice. I am far from being a Gnostic, but I am an N. I have no scorn for the concrete, still less for the this-worldly; I’m just frankly not good at it.
    Recognizing my own tilt, I think it does come down to a question of balance: we need to be able to get our hands dirty, without losing sight of the big picture.

    • Dylan Pahman

      I think there’s room for different vocations as well. What does it look like for a computer programmer to get his/her hands dirty? Probably something different than, say, a nurse. Some things may overlap between callings, but others may be more person-specific.

  • The story goes, The Times sent out an inquiry to writers asking “What is wrong with the world today?” and G.K. Chesterton responded

    “Dear Sir,

    I am.

    Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”

  • love casts out fear

    I agree with your observation that economic theory can be divorced from the “concrete” reality of lived experience. I suppose, however, one could spend some time considering what are the factors that determine if a theory can actually be lived. What are the determining factors? I am not an economist, but I definitely have observed this type of idealism: The Marxist claiming marxism has not truly been tried, the trickle-down economist adding so many qualifications to shelter the theory from criticism that it becomes simply an idea in which we can more or less participate, the distributist who cannot explain how to get from where we are to the end result. In evaluating the realism of a theory, which are the primary criteria used to determine this? The human person, the family, and the community? Profit? Stability? Obviously, these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As well in critiquing the economy’s weak areas, where do we gather our information? The Wall Street Journal? NPR’s “Marketplace”? Forbes? Getting to know poor persons in our community? Getting to know local business owners? Depending on whom one asks, the criteria that determines “what works” will vary. Think Rush Limbaugh or Pope Francis, different criteria determining how an economic theory relates to and in society, and if and how it functions.