Beyoncé, Religion, and the Crowd: Desiring Mercy, Not Sacrifice

By Adam Ericksen 09-18-2013
Beyonce, photo by nonu | photography, Flickr.com

Beyonce, photo by nonu | photography, Flickr.com

Maybe you are like me and you need a bit of good news this week, because it’s been a week of bad news. There was the tragic shooting at the Navy Yard, leaving 12 people killed. Then there were the racist comments about the new Miss America, Nina Davuluri. She is the first person of Indian descent to be crowned Miss America, yet the news of the event emphasized racist tweets. It was almost as if people were competing over who could be the most racist: Some referred to her as “the Arab,” and other tweets claimed, “this is America, not India,” and one even called her “Miss 7-11.” Not to mention the continuing escalation of tensions throughout the world involving Syria.

It was a depressing beginning to the week. I mimetically absorbed much of this violence, hatred, and racism. Misanthropy settled into my soul and I began to loathe myself and the entire freakin’ human race.

But then I saw this video of Beyoncé performing in Brazil, and my hope in humanity was restored.

Beyoncé possesses a transcendent power over her fans. Her concerts are like a religious experience. Anyone who doubts this fact needs to watch this (hilarious) video entitled “Beyoncé Fan Catches the Holy Ghost.”

Of course, most concerts are like a religious experience. To continue the analogy, the performer plays the role of the priest, who mediates transcendence to the crowd. Concerts draw us up into something bigger than our selves. There is a “oneness” that concertgoers begin to feel with one another and with the performer.

This “oneness” can be positive, but there is often a very dangerous side to it. For example, the anthropologist René Girard has emphasized the sacrificial element in ancient religions. Many moderns think that ancient religions were impractical, but in fact they answered a very practical question: how do we deal with rivalries, hatreds, and violence that threaten to destroy a community? Girard claims that ancient priests used sacrifice as a way to mimetically unite a community experiencing conflict by channeling all of their hatred and violence against a single victim. This victim, whom Girard calls the scapegoat, was sacrificed or banished from the community. Prohibitions and taboos emerged to stop rivalries from once again threatening the community, but the lines of prohibitions and taboos are always crossed. Despite these prohibitions, people routinely fall into rivalries that threaten our communities, and, in the case of war, our very existence.

What does all of this anthropology have to do with Beyoncé? The man in the video above crossed the line of prohibitions at a concert – he grabbed Beyoncé and pulled her down from the stage. This produced a situation similar to what Girard calls a “sacrificial crisis” – someone transgressed the prohibition and something needed to be done about it!

Beyoncé escaped his clutches and continued singing. The man was soon seized by security and dragged off. Most of us would think that this man needed to be banished from the concert, and possibly charged with a crime. I would understand if Beyoncé shouted some expletives and united the crowed in anger against the man. But Beyoncé responded differently. She stopped singing. Instead of responding with hatred and exclusionary sacrificial violence toward the man who pulled her down, she responded with the mercy.

“Hey! Hey!” she said into her microphone. “It’s alright. Calm down. It’s alright.” She picked up the Brazilian flag, walked to the man, and spoke words of love. “I love it here. It’s alright,” she said to the security guards. “He just got excited. Hey. What’s your name? Nice to meet you … Thank you. I love you too.”

Beyonce’s reaction to the man reminded me of Jesus, who Christian scripture refers to as “a great high priest.” He fully accepted people who transgressed the prohibitions of his culture into his life and fellowship. Once while he was eating with tax collectors and sinners, some Pharisees asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with sinners and tax collectors?” Jesus responded by quoting the prophet Hosea, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Jesus sought to unite his followers in the ways of God’s mercy. It’s a mercy that accepts all people – but especially those who transgress religious and cultural prohibitions – into a loving community. This mercy does not result in sacrificial violence that seeks to exclude people from that community.

Beyoncé united the crowd in mercy toward the man who transgressed a prohibition. She forgave him and the crowd responded mimetically by forgiving him, too.

Beyoncé has shown herself to be the Great High Priestess of Pop Culture who is inspiring her fans to respond with mercy, not sacrifice. And during a news week that is full of hatred and violence, I am thankful for her.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Image: Beyonce, photo by nonu | photography, Flickr.com

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