Saturday, June 12, 2010

Scapegoat or Savior?

In her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," Ursula Le Guin describes a seemingly utopian society, Omelas, where there is no disease, no poverty, no unhappiness--except for that of one small child (a child who is mentally deficient and who may not be completely aware of its circumstances), a scapegoat whose unhappiness makes the happiness of everyone else possible. And because there are a few members of this society who will not accept their own well-being at so high a cost, there are those who walk away from Omelas.

Of course, Le Guin tells the story much more beautifully than this summary can suggest, and the story is harrowing. But I've also had niggling moments where the story is disturbing on a deeper level even than the moral questions it raises for readers (to what extent are we willing to accept our happiness at the expense of others?). You see, sometimes I find the line between a scapegoat and a savior to be a blurry line--sometimes (and it almost seems blasphemous to write this), I've even wondered if I am somehow morally compromised when I accept the idea that Jesus Christ bought my spiritual salvation at such excruciating expense. Is it right for me to be so complacent about that idea? How can I justify the idea of someone else suffering for me? Is it possible that in my own spiritual life I'm reenacting my own Omelas?

I have to admit that this isn't something I spend a lot of time thinking about--for one thing, I find the idea of a Savior moving on so many levels that it's hard for me to even entertain negative questions. For another, I am, at heart, somewhat conventional and blasphemy makes me squirm. (And these kinds of questions seem borderline blasphemy to me). But now that I've raised the spectre of the question, I think I have to entertain it.

Ultimately, though (and much to my relief), I don't think that the seeming parallels between the scapegoat of Omelas and the savior of the world hold up. You see, there's a crucial difference between those two stories, a difference that was driven home to me today as I prepared to teach a lesson on the sacrament. Jesus Christ knowingly chose his role as a savior; the child in Omelas had no choice. And that ability to choose is, I think, crucial. In the garden of Gethsemane, Christ prayed to have the "cup pass from [him]," but he accepted the will of God if this was not possible. He accepted the possibility of pain because, to Him, the cost was minimal compared to the outcome. The child in Omelas, uncomprehending, had no such option available.

But. The fact that the Savior was complicit in his sacrifice doesn't change the fact that I do still have some moral responsibility in the situation. He may have chosen his sacrifice willingly, but I still benefit from his pain, which makes me somehow complicit in his suffering. But I can't walk away from this kind of spiritual Omelas because I need it too much. So what do I do? Agonizing over it (harboring some kind of spiritual guilt akin to the "white liberal guilt" that so many liberals feel over the ills of their colonial past) doesn't seem to accomplish much. I suppose first I have to recognize my complicity--but I also have to accept my responsibility. If I do indeed believe that Christ died for my sins (and I do), then I also have to accept that I need to do my level best to ensure that the sacrifice was not in vain.

Some days, that seems like a big responsibility. Walking away might be easier. But I choose, instead, to yield.

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