A Polish priest who led a public burning of items believed to have magical or occult properties has issued an apology, NBC News reported. The items—including Harry Potter titles, Buddhist figurines, and an African mask—were cast into a fire outside a Catholic church in Gdansk, Poland. Scapegoating and vilifying others are common practices in justifying religious violence.
The Rev. Rafal Jarosiewicz spearheaded the event in Gdansk that has captured the public eye, for which he has since apologized on one of his foundation’s Facebook pages. At the event, Jarosiewicz’s congregation brought many items to be burned that they believed had been imbued with magical properties by an evil force—Harry Potter books are often thought to promote sorcery, for example. Shortly after the conclusion of the event, Jarosiewicz was fined by local officials. An anti-pollution special interest group has spoken with lawyers while considering whether to press charges against the priest for breaking laws regarding burning waste in public places. Historically speaking, the public burning of evil objects indicates a connotation of “otherness” that is used to perpetuate and excuse scapegoating and religious violence.
Burning Books – The Origins of Scapegoating and Projection
The reason for Jarosiewicz’s public burning is rooted in the belief that inanimate objects can be vessels or weapons for malevolent forces. “In Leviticus 16, in the context of the repetition of various sins and defilements, there are several passages regarding goats taken for a sin offering,” said Dr. Jason C. Bivins, Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. Dr. Bivins says that two goats are taken before the Lord to atone for Israel’s sins—one to be sacrificed, the other to be left in order to become a “scapegoat,” the Hebrew term for “goat for Azazel.” Dr. Bivins continued, “So, the goat became the embodiment of the people’s sins, which were in some sense sent away to be consumed by this demon.” Next, Moses is commanded to have Aaron lay hands on the goat and confess to it, then send the goat away into the wilderness and free it.
“This paradigmatic story is a useful comparative tool for understanding how groups are identified as contagions to be purged, aliens to be outcast, or assailants to be defeated,” Dr. Bivins said. In the Gdansk incident, the fear of Harry Potter promoting sorcery or Buddha leading parishioners astray is a fear of contagion, what Dr. Bivins refers to as “a fear of being compromised by the presence of what is not you.”
Burning Harry Potter – The Causes Benefits of Scapegoating
Where does the urgency to scapegoat come from? “The process of constructing a religious other happens with perhaps surprising frequency in multi-religious societies where hardline groups don’t enjoy the authority or the privilege they can feel they deserve,” Dr. Bivins said. “So they seek to achieve certainty and clarity by naming, scapegoating, and targeting specific causes for what they see as a compromise of righteousness, and the insult of their own demotion to minority status.”
Again, this suggests that projecting negative qualities onto a scapegoat of some kind is born of a fear of what’s different and unknown, especially when the “other” challenges our notions of our own power or authority. The give and take of coexistence becomes a bumpy road and resentments and hostilities flare. They even seem to provide benefits to those affected. “Identifying targets—whether in the form of ‘secular humanism,’ ‘heathen’ sectarians, or moral backsliders—works to establish both an explanation for [the believer’s] social distress or indeterminacy and a coherent self-representation, too,” Dr. Bivins said. Targets of religious violence “are generally religious competitors or heretical policies and practices whose presence convinces those articulating violence that there is a dire threat that absolutely needs to be eliminated.” Dr. Bivins explains that this method of targeting a religious other works not only to frame the self as one possessing moral legitimacy, “but conceivably also as a vehicle for the divine will itself.”
Reverend Jarosiewicz and his congregation likely believed they were acting justly at the time of the book burning and figurine and mask burning, ridding the world of objects that diminished the parishioners’ religious beliefs and promoted a foreign and malevolent agency. However, by building a fire and eradicating Buddhist statues, Harry Potter books, and other things they deemed threatening, the congregation engaged in scapegoating a religious or secular “other” in an act that dates back millennia and promotes the self as a moral and justified agent of the divine.
Dr. Jason C. Bivins contributed to this article. Dr. Bivins is a Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. He received his B.A. in Religion from Oberlin College and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Indiana University.