You’ll probably remember the play The Crucible from your high school literature class. It’s the story of the witch hunts in Salem Massachusetts. It’s a pretty good play, and take you into a fascinating and terrifying territory of human psychology and drama because it exposes the witch hunt-scapegoating mechanism.
Within an enclosed religious community a little girl lies sick in a strange coma-like state. Some other girls are accused of dabbling with her in the occult with a slave from Barbados called Tituba. Before long, extremely complicated relationships in the community are exposed. A panic develops as some occult activities are confessed and the witch hunt begins with innocent people being accused.
The play is a powerful mix of children, sex and religion and emotions run high.
When the right conditions for a witch hunt develop, the crowd bays for blood. Their self righteous anger fear is volcanic and their emotions of rage, frustration and fury will not be quenched until the blood is shed.
In this situation if anyone calls for calm they are shouted down. If anyone attempts to bring reason in the midst of the rage, they are accused as one of the enemy. If anyone pleads for the crowd to listen to facts, weigh up the realities and make just and fair judgements they are perceived as part of the problem.
Those engaged in the witch hunt are usually powerless. One of the things that stokes their rage is the fact that they cannot act. They are fighting forces greater and more powerful than themselves, and this drives them crazy. The powers may be supernatural powers of the devil or more often it is the people in power–the king, the president, the millionaires, the politicians–whoever. The people in the witch hunt are driven by the fact that they are the little guys–the down trodden–the faithful ones who fuel and fund the ones in power who are doing nothing.
The frustration is also driven by fear of the powerful ones. The ones in power might do something. They might retaliate against the little guys, or they might do nothing.
What is most disturbing in a witch hunt is that the so called witches are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Remember the old story about how witches in European witch hunts were put to trial. They were strapped in a chair which was dunked under the water. If the woman was not drowned she had supernatural power, was a witch and would be burnt at the stake. If she did drown she was innocent.
The same is true in the process of the witch hunt-scapegoating. If the accused speak up in defense of themselves nothing they say will be believed. They are, after all a witch and therefore a daughter of Satan the Father of Lies. How can you believe anything they say? If they remain silent their silence condemns them. They are clearly guilty or they would speak out.
If anyone defends the witch with reason and calm analysis of facts they too will find themselves accused.
It gets even more complicated when there is actual evidence of witchcraft. In The Crucible there seems to be some credible evidence of occult activity. So when a person becomes the scapegoat, if they have done something wrong there will be no attempt at justice which weighs up facts and makes a just judgment. Instead they will be utterly condemned. Furthermore, minor offenses will grow in seriousness. When there is a witch hunt, for example, a simple thing like carrying a rabbits foot for good luck will suddenly become a sign of some terrible occult activity.
I say all this to simply warn readers who are rightfully enraged about the current wave of sex scandals in the Catholic Church to avoid the temptation to engage in witch hunting. By all means rage and vent and weep with fury.
I will tell you that last night in the confessional during my rosary I broke down and wept bitterly, and as I said Mass yesterday found it difficult to continue because of the broken lives and innocence of children and the weight of this scandal on the priesthood and Christ’s church.
But in the midst of the justified rage, frustration and fury we must also step back and look at the facts. We must weigh up our rage and balance it with reason. We must seek justice–and justice does not mean letting people off the hook who should take proper responsibility. Seeking justice is neither a witch hunt nor is it a bland “mercy” which excuses people and perpetrates the status quo. Action must continue to be taken against the rot and corruption and words will not be enough.
The sex scandals have revealed an American church which is, in many ways, corrupt through and through. This is not just a sex problem, nor is it simply a homosexual problem. Neither it is just the problem of incompetent or corrupt bishops and priests.
The problem is rooted in a profound departure from the simple, saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and his cross and resurrection, and it will only be solved by a return and renewal of the faith.
We have taken our eyes off Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith and we have focussed on just about anything else and this has led us into weakness, sin and opening the door to the devil.
Purging the filth is part of the solution, but unless we also return to the fulness of the faith in humility and prayer the purge may turn into a witch hunt.