Human “Scapegoats” and The “Sacred” Narratives of Racism

Kitty Millet        April 2018


Returning to his native Warsaw in 1979, and for the first time in his tenure as pope, Pope John Paul II was met by thousands of Poles. As the crowds thronged Warsaw, hoping to to hear him say “mass”, the Pope “spoke openly on such sensitive themes as human rights, freedom of conscience and the church’s ancient role in the state.” [1] Such openness signaled to his listeners that the modern phenomenon of communism could not detach Poles from their “ancient” Christian history.

To the Pope’s assertion that “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe”, the crowd responded with chants of “We want God.”[2] In the West, the papal visit was a watershed moment in which the dismantling of the Soviet Union and its client states could be imagined not only as an autonomous nation-state, but also as subjects with the “shared sense” and values of the Christian and democratic West.

When Donald Trump visited Poland on July 6, 2017, he recalled that 1979 event, but he focused on “[A] million Polish people” who “did not ask for wealth. They did not ask for privilege. Instead, one million Poles sang three simple words: ‘We Want God’”.[3] He noted that “every communist in Warsaw must have known that their oppressive system would soon come crashing down”. This simple shift in focus, from “communism” to “communist”, suggested that Poland’s suffering was produced by foreign agents, illegitimately present and occupying Poland. Although Poles had been victimized by these intruders, who had intended to destroy their “faith” and their “identity . . . indeed the very essence of your culture and your humanity”, Christian Poles had prevailed against them. These agents were not Christian Poles, but Others and their historical tenure in the land had come to an end because Poles “want God”.

He framed his comments in relation to the site at which he spoke, the Monument of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The Poles had suffered “under a double occupation”; they had “endured evils beyond description”. Since Trump was the first American president to not speak at the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, his reference underscored that Poles were the Nazis’ real victims; they would gain political autonomy, “freedom and safety”, through a homogeneous, Christian, white world.

On November 11, 2017, Poles took to the streets again. The Wall Street Journal reported that “tens of thousands of Poles . . . marched across downtown Warsaw” in an “independence-day procession organized by the nationalist youth movement” the National Radical Camp and cosponsored by All Polish Youth.[4] People carried banners, with the slogans, “White Europe”, “Europe Will Be White Again”, and “Clean Blood”. They came from all over Europe, especially from those countries whose histories of fascism had been particularly virulent during the Nazi Reich.[5] Although the “procession” included many people who did not belong to a “neo-fascist or racist organization”, they were “fine with it . . . just happy to be here”.[6]

The rally’s banners, celebrated attacks on Jews, and encouraged marchers to “Pray for Islamic Holocaust”. The Radical Camp’s social media sites linked the “influx of Syrian refugees into Europe” to “a conspiracy driven by Jewish financiers, who are working with Communists” as The Wall Street Journal reporter explained. Interspersed among these banners, participants chanted “We want God” throughout Warsaw. When asked, they proclaimed they were quoting Trump. Both Jews and Muslims were to be eliminated if God was to rule Poland. The crowds saw in Trump’s use of the phrase the legitimacy of, and inspiration for, their own racial hatreds.

Joining “We want God” to a narrative in which ethnic nationalism implicitly found its validity in Christianity, Trump fused race with religious identity. He reinforced the crowd’s belief in ethnic nationalism as a divinely-sanctioned and politically-expressed right. Consequently, racial hatred and nationalism became constitutive elements not only for religious expression, but they were also now the valences of sacred narratives. At the November rally, the crowds, emboldened by this sentiment, screamed it for the world to hear: “We want God” became synonymous with “Make Europe White Again”, a fiction that linked America and Poland together through a calculus of ethnic nationalisms sutured to religious identity. The marchers had finally gained a “shared sense”, a sensus communis, in which their “suffering” was recognized. It was a sensus communis of racial hatred, implicitly associated with divine sanction.

In juxtaposition, these three events suggest a trajectory of racism, moving from the Pope’s  critique of an ideology, to the crowd’s association of that ideology with a rejection of their historical religion, to a displacement of that critique onto individuals who become the signifiers of a threat against the “shared sense” or values of that whole. The final step in this trajectory is the appeal to individuals to take matters into their own hands and violently act against the religious offense, individuals who no longer qualify as human.

With similar conflicts erupting in Charlottesville, Myanmar, Paris, and Gujarat, Anuradha Dingwaney Needham and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan explain that today’s religious conflict is no longer “primarily waged over matters of belief”, but “it is instead religion as the basis of identity . . . with co-religionists constituting a community, nation, or ‘civilization’—that comes to be the ground of difference and hence conflict”.[7] Needham and Rajan highlight racial hatred, recuperated as the foundation of community, under the aegis of religion, institutes a mandate. The essence of that mandate hinges on the identification of one group as representatives of an imagined religious threat.

The Polish example offers but one trajectory of a global crisis in which imagined threats, combined with imagined religious authorization and ethnic nationalism, promote exclusion and racism. In other words, although religion does not always produce racism as its telos or end, it can be commandeered to produce it. Communities feel authorized to associate collective apprehensions and societal fears with the necessity of their racisms by draping  them in “sacred” legitimacy.


[1] Peter Osnos and Michael Getler, “Polish Throngs Hail Pope”, Washington Post, June 3, 1979. Sections of this article appear in Kitty Millet, “Introduction”, Fault Lines of Modernity: Fractures and Repairs of Religion, Ethics, and Literature. Eds. Millet, Kitty; Figueira, Dorothy (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] CNN transcript of the speech (

[4] See Drew Hinshaw, “Polish Nationalist March Draws Thousands in Capital”, The Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2017. Both groups adopted the names of fascist movements from the 1930s “which fought to rid Poland of Jews in the years before the Holocaust.”

[5] See Millet, “Introduction”.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Anuradha Dingwaney Needham and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s The Crisis of Secularism in India (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 3.


Kitty Millet is Professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Comparative Jewish Literature at San Francisco State University, U.S. Her latest work includes Fault Lines of Modernity: The Fractures and Repairs of Religion, Ethics, and Literature, selected essays, co-edited with Dorothy Figueira, 2018 (Bloomsbury).