Scapegoating LGBTQ+ People Must End and All Be Welcomed, Says Fr. James Alison

Fr. James Alison

After recognizing at age nine that he was gay, James Alison, a priest and theologian, spent many scholarly years trying to understand why queer people are targets in society. His conclusion: the queer community has become victims of the age-old practice known as “scapegoating.” Alison recently described his personal and scholarly journey in an interview with Australia’s ABC News.

At age 18, after reading a biography of Padre Pio which made Alison feel connected to God and his sexuality, he converted to Catholicism. Although being Catholic allowed Alison to “accept his own queerness” and see that “gay love could be real,” he there were challenges:

“[F]our years later he joined a religious order in Mexico, where he began training to become a Catholic priest. Part of his training involved pastoral work with people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS in the UK and Brazil, as the illness swept through queer communities across the world in the mid-1980s.

But while Catholicism had made him feel he could accept his own queerness, he saw serious shortcomings in the Church’s response to the AIDS crisis.

“‘At that time, the official language in the Catholic Church around gay love [described it as] hedonistic and self-centred,’ Dr Alison says.”

Alison could not understand why queer people were constantly being targeted in society until he read the work of René Girard, a French philosopher, who introduced Alison to the “scapegoat mechanism.” Alison explained:

“In situations of pressure, a group which is fighting amongst itself [and] which is full of rivalry, will mysteriously be able to move from an all-against-all to an all-against-one.”

“The celebration of the survival of the group at the expense of a ‘wicked other’ has been absolutely part of human survival techniques and at the basis of so many mythologies all over the world.”

Benjamin Jones, a scholar who studies scapegoating at the Australian National University, described the phenomenon an “adaptive human behavior” used by groups “to determine and define their own identity.” He explained:

“Once you exclude a particular [person or group], that does serve to intensify this understanding of what you’re like and who you are.”

“The classic example is the Holocaust, [which saw] a subgroup being blamed for something without any evidence, and that being used to leverage a particular political interest.”

After years of research on scapegoating, Alison has found a strong personal connection to the scapegoat experience. He also asserts that the concept of scapegoating can be traced back to the Bible. Specifically, we can turn “on its head the old-fashioned [understanding] … of the death of Christ” by viewing Jesus’ death as a consequence of scapegoating:

“Rather than seeing Jesus Christ’s death as a sacrifice to a wrathful God, Girard’s interpretation sees Christ as a scapegoat ‘created by us at our worst’ — that is, the judgement and wrath comes from us, not God.”

“This understanding sees God as loving and compassionate, as he has self-sacrificially given over Christ as a way to meet our demand for violence once and for all.”

According to Jones, it is possible to overcome scapegoating. However, it would require redefining communities and straying away from placing blame on others. He explained:

“[It] would probably need to involve some acknowledgement that we’re all to blame for something.”

“If we can tolerate the responsibility, absorb the blame, and say, ‘Well, this is all of our problem … it’s not due to any one particular group or person’, it would serve the function of increasing social cohesion.”

Alison agrees with Jones’ conclusion. He believes that every generation will find a “different set of frightened barriers” that will need to be undone. Breaking down those barriers will allow “everybody to come in,” leading to more power for the queer community and all marginalized groups.

Editor’s Note: This weekend and next week, Fr. Alison will lead two retreats hosted by New Ways Ministry—one for LGBTQ+ people, their families, and pastoral ministers and another for gay priests, deacons, and religious. Please keep the retreatants in prayer. If you would like to keep up to date about New Ways Ministry’s retreats and other programs, subscribe to the mailing list by clicking here.

Sarah Cassidy (she/her), New Ways Ministry. February 16, 2024

1 reply
  1. John Calhoun
    John Calhoun says:

    Praised be author Father James Alison! Three early titles I especially appreciate: “The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes,”Crossroad-Herder, 1998; “Rising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination,” Crossroad-Herder, 1996; “Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay,” Crossroad, 2001. Great Retreat Reading!

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