This I Believe

Ever since I finished Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, I have been reading additional sources that support his belief that there are three moral standards in the world. In my opinion his thesis is accurate.

The first and oldest moral standard is that there is no greater moral good than to protect the integrity of the tribe. Since we never grew rapidly as a species until we moved from the level of blood kin to the level of tribe, keeping the integrity of the tribe was critical to the development of civilizations. People surrendered their personal freedom to the leaders of their tribe.

What brought us together as a tribal species was not the need for safety, but our search for meaning. Which brings us to the second moral standard of our species, that there is no greater moral good than to obey the teachings of the gods. This is the moral standard of all fundamentalism, particularly the fundamentalist expressions of the desert religions, which began as religions of scarcity, and remain so in their fundamentalist forms. With this moral standard, people handed over agency to the religious leaders who spoke on behalf of the gods.

There is a much younger third moral standard. It is the standard of most of Western Civilization. It is the standard that says there is no greater moral good than to protect the freedom of the individual. This standard permeates most of Europe, the United States, particularly its northern tier, and all of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It was the moral standard of America’s founding fathers, and its principles are woven into the US Constitution.

René Girard, the late anthropologist and philosopher, wrote a book called Violence and the Sacred, in which he talked about tribes and religions, and how those in power figured out how to remain in power. They created scapegoats within the tribe that only they could identify, who had to be expelled for the sake of the tribe’s or religion’s security. “It’s not a good time to change leaders. Only I have the unique ability to root out our enemies and banish them from the nation.” This mimetic theory, as Girard called it, is at the foundation of all power metanarratives.

A metanarrative is a big giant story that explains the meaning of life. In power metanarratives, the victors write history, determine the nature of truth, identify and elminate scapegoats, and force their narrative on the entire culture. At its worst, it is Germany’s Third Reich. An example of a religious power metanarrative would be today’s American evangelicalism, in which leaders claim the moral authority to condemn LGBTQ+ people as scapegoats who need to be expelled from the community.

Scapegoats are always the powerless. In today’s evangelical America, they are transgender children, only .58 percent of the population, but with a suicide completion rate 13 times higher than their peers. They are America’s most vulnerable population, yet they have become the center of America’s culture wars. The scriptures say absolutely nothing about being transgender. But this is not about what the scriptures say. It is about the arbitrary decisions of those in power about who is and who is not a threat to the community, and therefore a scapegoat.

And yes, it is not lost on me that I am a scapegoat in the evangelical metanarrative. Someone who was respected as a national leader was immediately ostracized upon announcing they were transgender. It happened because the leaders of that religion decided all transgender people were not fit to be leaders. It cost me a huge pension, all of my jobs, and almost all of my friends.

In his study of power metanarratives, Girard made a fascinating discovery. There was one major metanarrative, and only one, that was not a power metanarrative. In fact, its hero was a scapegoat. His words were about caring for widows, orphans, and the poor. His followers were social outcasts. 

Girard was very taken by that scapegoat and his followers, if not the religion that eventually grew out of his life. The religion became just another power metanarrative. The scapegoat himself, and the message he brought, were truly revolutionary. The scapegoat taught that you should love your enemies, and those who wanted to be great had to become servants of all.

I still believe in the life and teachings of that scapegoat. I can think of no better way to live than loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self. I believe it is the teachings of that scapegoat that gave birth to the moral standard of the entire Western world, that there is no greater moral good than to protect the freedom of the individual.

Because we are open to everyone on the spiritual journey, some people assume Left Hand Church is a Unitarian/Universalist fellowship or a Unity Church. We are not. We are a Christian church. We follow the scapegoat and his teachings. We eschew the power metanarratives and embrace the one who said the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Yes, after everything I experienced at the hands of the evangelical church, I am still a follower of Jesus. Because Jesus is not the evangelical church. Jesus is the one who fought for the freedom and dignity of every single individual. Jesus told us that above all else, love wins.

It is that Jesus I worship during this, the darkest of days. It is that Jesus, born in a stable in an out of the way village in an obscure nation over 2,000 years ago, who turned power metanarratives upside down and gave our species it’s only hope – that the way forward is through love.

That is the Jesus who I celebrate in this holiest of seasons.