James Zipadelli’s Dec. 10, 2017 Sermon on “Scapegoating”

December 10, 2017
What do Jesus, Steve Bartman, and the families affected by gun violence have in common?
Speaker: James Zipadelli
Good morning.
Before I begin this sermon today, I would like to take a moment to remember the 20 children and six adults that were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, CT, five years ago, on December 14, 2012. The students that were killed were between 5 and 7 years old. These young students lives were cut short before they even had a chance to live. The gunman, as you may recall, was 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who first shot his mother, took his mother’s car, and then went on to shoot the kids and adults at school.
President Obama, at the time called the shooting, the lowest point of his presidency. Senator Chris Murphy, who once represented Newtown, has since spoken out for stronger measures on gun control, including at one point holding a 13-hour filibuster on the topic. You may recall that several laws were proposed after the shooting, including an assault-weapons ban by Senator Feinstein and a proposal to have universal background checks. Both measures were defeated.
Here at Universalist National Memorial Church, our declaration of faith has these elements, “In faith, and freedom, we are called to bring hope and healing to the world, so that all may rejoice in God’s grace. We believe in the universal love of God, the trustworthiness of the bible as a source of divine revelation, the need for repentance and forgiveness of sin, and the final harmony of all souls with God.”
I’d like to focus on an aspect that is not as widely discussed here: Adam Lanza’s parents, Peter and Nancy Lanza. Let’s start with a question. Did Nancy Lanza have to die? Adam Lanza shot her four times. She was found by investigators in her bed, still in her pajamas. If our fervent hope is that all souls will have a final harmony with God, then shouldn’t that include them?
Or do they not deserve to be mentioned? Do they somehow deserve what their son perpetrated? And what does that say about us?
By focusing on the Lanzas, I am not trivializing the horror that Adam Lanza inflicted on students and teachers at Sandy Hook. After all, Christmas is only a few weeks away. Their children’s and parent’s seats will be empty. Presents won’t be opened. Their lives have been changed forever. I cannot even begin to comprehend or understand how they feel, every day.
But let’s not forget that in any act of gun violence, there are multiple families affected: The parents of the children and parents shot, of course; but also, the family members of the shooter. Because they are related, they feel a sense of shame and guilt and loss, too. What must that be like?
We get a sense of how the family members of Dylan Klebold felt on that horrible day, April 20, 1999, when Dylan Klebold and his friend Eric Harris, both seniors, walked into the school lunch cafeteria during the lunch hour and shot up Columbine High School, killing 12 and a teacher, and injuring 24 others. I was with my mother and siblings in Cape Cod that day, and we sat stunned at the hotel TV when high school students were running out of the school with their hands up.
In an essay titled, “I Will Never Know Why,” written for O Magazine, in November 2009, Susan Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, writes,
“In the weeks and months that followed the killings, I was nearly insane with sorrow for the suffering my son had caused, and with grief for the child I had lost. Much of the time, I felt that I could not breathe, and I often wished that I would die. I got lost while driving. When I returned to work part-time in late May, I’d sit through meetings without the slightest idea of what was being said. Entire conversations slipped from memory. I cried at inappropriate times, embarrassing those around me. Once, I saw a dead pigeon in a parking lot and nearly became hysterical. I mistrusted everything—especially my own judgment.
Klebold continues in another part of the essay, “Those of us who cared for Dylan felt responsible for his death. We thought, “If I had been a better (mother, father, brother, friend, aunt, uncle, cousin), I would have known this was coming.” We perceived his actions to be our failure. I tried to identify a pivotal event in his upbringing that could account for his anger. Had I been too strict? Not strict enough? Had I pushed too hard, or not hard enough? In the days before he died, I had hugged him and told him how much I loved him. I held his scratchy face between my palms and told him that he was a wonderful person and that I was proud of him. Had he felt pressured by this? Did he feel that he could not live up to my expectations?”
Susan Klebold gave a TED talk in February about the suicide rates of teenagers.
None of this is to trivialize what Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris did to their school. If our fervent hope is that no soul is forever lost from God, does that include Susan Klebold?
Does the family of Stephen Paddock deserve the shame and humiliation of what he perpetrated in Las Vegas? Paddock murdered 58 people and injured 546, shooting from a suite in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, at people who were just out enjoying a music festival.
And it goes beyond families of shooters affected by gun violence. On October 14, 2003, in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series between the Cubs and the Florida Marlins, Steve Bartman was sitting in Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113, at Wrigley Field, just a guy with a Walkman and a Cubs baseball cap. The Cubs were up 3-0 in the bottom of the 8th inning. Moises Alou, the Cubs outfielder, was tracking the ball as it neared the fence. He jumped, with his glove outstretched, and missed the ball. Bartman caught the ball instead. Had Alou caught the ball, the Cubs would have been four outs away from going to the World Series. Instead, the Cubs surrendered eight runs, lost the game 8-3, and lost Game 7. Wikipedia refers to this as the “Steve Bartman incident.”
Bartman was hounded and vilified by Cubs fans, who blamed him for the Cubs losing out on a shot to the World Series. The Cubs, as you may know, hadn’t won a World Series title in nearly 100 years at that point. Bartman hid in his parents’ house. There is a YouTube video of Bartman being escorted out of Wrigley Field after the game as he is being yelled and jeered at. Try to imagine if you were in his situation and how you would feel.
After the game, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich said that he should be in the witness protection program. His place of employment was published online, too. The almost-catch by Moises Alou and Bartman’s catch was on a continuous loop on TV. He received death threats. The ball was destroyed a year later in the hope that it would rid the Cubs of the Curse of the Billy Goat. Steve Bartman still lives in Chicago, but won’t say where. When the Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016, the Cubs reached out to Bartman and gave him a World Series ring. According to ESPN, to this day, Bartman has a legal team and a crisis manager who has monitored the developments over the years.
The Cubs fans who are overjoyed at winning the World Series in 2016 have moved on. Steve Bartman has never been allowed to.
As a Red Sox fan who watched the Red Sox win the World Series in 2004, breaking their own 86-year old drought, I understand how passionate the Cubs fans are, and how much suffering they have gone through. I do not, however, understand why they had to vilify Steve Bartman.
Why do we scapegoat people? What purpose does it serve? We all do it. Particularly when the answer is not easy; when it’s complicated; or when there’s no answer that will satisfy us.
The term “scapegoat” comes from biblical times. In the book of Leviticus in the parable of the Day of Atonement, Aaron brings two goats before God.
7 Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 8 He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat.[a] 9 Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.
11 “Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering.
He shall also burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar.
26 “The man who releases the goat as a scapegoat must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp. 27 The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and intestines are to be burned up.
As a way of atoning for sin, Aaron brings the goat as an offering for God. Thus, the sins of everyone else could be washed away.
I have thought about Steve Bartman as I was researching material for this sermon.
In the book of Matthew, Chapter 7, Jesus says: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Why would Cubs fans from blaming Steve Bartman, when the Cubs have a GM, and director of player personnel and players who make millions of dollars, whose job it is to perform, and they didn’t perform the way they should that season?
Why was Steve Bartman, who was an innocent man before Game 6, led out into the wilderness by Cubs fans, when he in fact loved the Cubs? Why was he forced to apologize and endure years of abuse for something that any fan would have done; instinctively reaching to catch the ball?
The answer is: The Cubs fans blamed Bartman because it was the easy thing to do. They needed a villain, someone to blame, and Bartman was it.
And Bartman never took advantage of his newfound celebrity. He was offered the chance to be commercially successful but declined. All he wanted was to live a quiet life. He was more Christ-like than the Cubs fans who were jeering at him.
What would possess Adam Lanza to murder his mother and 26 people at Newtown Elementary School?
What would possess Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to shoot their students at Columbine High School?
Don’t you think Peter Lanza, Adam’s father, would like to know?
Don’t you think Susan Klebold would like to know?
Don’t you think Stephen Paddock’s family would like to know?
Scapegoating these individuals won’t bring their children and parents back. It won’t undo what has happened. Scapegoating is convenient. Because we could pass laws around universal background checks; we could pass laws involving bump stocks, so that guns don’t become automatic weapons; we could up the budget for mental health screenings.
I can hear the National Rifle Association saying, “But it wouldn’t have changed the fact that these shootings have happened.” When children died in the early 80s, we put seatbeats in the car. We put airbags in the car. We didn’t say, ‘Well, sorry, but children dying in car crashes just happens in America.’ Congress – who is responsible for the health and welfare of citizens – has a moral imperative to do something about it. We as citizens have a civic responsibility to let Members of Congress know what we think; even when it’s hard; and when necessary express our choice at the ballot box.
Should the parents of a child with substance abuse problems be held responsible for their child overdosing and dying?
When the Bible says in the Beatitudes, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me; I was in prison, and you came to me;” Jesus, through the ages, was talking about the families of gun violence, of addiction, of homelessness, too. Even those who have committed crimes.
Jesus was scapegoated too.
Before he was nailed to the cross, he first had to be betrayed, and arrested. This is what happened in the Book of John, Chapter 18.
When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it.
2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. 3 So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.
4 Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”
5 “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) 6 When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
7 Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” they said. Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me, then let these men go.”  This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”
10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)
11 Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
12 Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound him 13 and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jewish leaders that it would be good if one man died for the people.
When Jesus is questioned by Pontius Pilate, there’s a section in the exchange that I find very interesting. Here it is:
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” He knows in that moment that he is going to die.
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”
40 They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising.
As Pilate himself admits, he had no basis for charging Jesus; he could have released him. But he asked the crowd of assembled Jews. They shouted, “No, not him! Give us Barrabas!”
Is it possible that Jesus was the ultimate scapegoat, the one who was innocent but treated cruelly through no fault of his own?
This is a good example of groupthink. Scapegoating is a more subtle form of bullying, in which one person does it, and then it gets reinforced by the group.
All of the examples that I’ve shared are well known, whether it’s the parents of Sandy Hook or Columbine High School shootings, Steve Bartman, or Jesus being arrested. But there is scapegoating that is more subtle and less well known. What is it that we all can do to stop contributing to scapegoating of others?
The first thing we can do is continually search for the truth, not succumbing to the thoughts of others, but to testify to the truth, as was the purpose of Jesus’ life. It is the truth that shatters false-blame and the need to find someone we can say “caused the harm.”
Secondly, we can be truthful to ourselves about our own insecurities which lead us to judge others more harshly than ourselves. This is not outward truth, but inward truth—a reckoning of ourselves to ourselves.
We all feel insecure at moments in our lives. When we do, we should think about the root cause of that insecurity and seek outside help if necessary. We shouldn’t just find someone to blame just because we can.
We spend way too much energy on little problems, that upon closer examination, really don’t matter all that much.
Let us resolve to care about one another, and instead of scapegoating people, build healthy and fulfilling relationships.
May it be so.
Amen.