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Unhinged politicians, wrathful preachers, belligerent protesters and hateful pundits pursue a practice as old as the Bible. They create scapegoats.

The practice of the scapegoat has its genesis in the biblical book of Leviticus, where the sins of the people were placed symbolically on the head of an innocent goat. The goat was then driven into the wilderness, taking away the sin that was among the people.


Leviticus 16:21-22 reads: “And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land; and he shall let the goat go in the wilderness.”


Scapegoats never really freed the Hebrew people from sin any more than our naming of scapegoats really solves contemporary problems.


Yet many Christians regularly practice scapegoating. Whether our anger is full-throated, oxygen-deprived rage or snake-eyed sarcasm or mocking humor, we readily blame others for what is wrong.


Take but a few examples of Christian leaders who scapegoat: Baptist minister Steven Anderson said he wanted to see President Obama die of brain cancer, while former Southern Baptist Convention vice president Wiley Drake prayed for the president’s death. Both blamed Obama for their perception of what’s wrong. Obama’s early pastoral mentor, Jeremiah Wright, blamed the government for a genocide campaign against people of color through the HIV virus. Jerry Falwell blamed gays and the ACLU for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.


Of course, scapegoating is not practiced solely in the house of God. Glenn Beck, Congressman Joe Wilson, the Birthers, the global warming deniers, the anti-reformers of health care and the anti-tax protesters bark their share of blame. They readily accuse others of being liars, liberals, socialists, environmentalists and Nazis, all enemies of their America.


Perhaps behind the blame game is the loss of the four cardinal virtues.


Writing in “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis said that the word “cardinal” came from the Latin word that meant “the hinge of the door.” He identified these cardinal virtues as prudence or common sense; temperance or balance; justice or fairness; and fortitude or “guts” when things are tough.


A civil society swings on these four hinges. And right now, our society appears to be becoming unhinged.


Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. A shorter version of this editorial appeared on Tuesday on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” Web page.

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