The Kingdom of Happiness

Recently downtown Las Vegas has been buzzing about a new book about Tony Hsieh, the Downtown Project, and the downtown revitalization efforts. I have not yet been able to read the book, but it’s on my short-list. The author is a friend and has been featured on The Downtown Faith Discussion podcast.

She was encouraged by Hsieh at the beginning of the efforts to chronicle and investigate the restoration of downtown Las Vegas as the most community-focused, urban center in America. They had a 5-year timeline with which to make this happen and it was a lofty goal to say the least.

The author, Aimee Groth, was inspired and believed in the vision. She began to spend large parts of her year living and working in downtown Las Vegas. Her mission, to live and breathe the hope-filled project subjectively, while writing about its progress objectively. No easy task.

Since the release of the book and its criticism of the efforts, Hsieh, Zappos, and the Downtown Project have denounced her story and believe it does not reflect the full truth behind the revitalization. While I cannot intelligently comment on the book’s veracity, I can comment on what I saw and heard at a recent event in downtown. Aimee was interviewed about her book at a local bar, Velveteen Rabbit, and the comments and questions revealed something deeper about downtown than I had ever seen.

Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, and Scapegoats

Maybe you’ve heard of Yom Kippur, the deeply religious, Jewish ceremony of atonement. Maybe not. I’ll explain a bit.

In the Old Testament, or the Torah to my Jewish friends, we find God instructing many different ceremonies for the nation of Israel. The ceremonies were to purify them as a family-nation, set them apart from other nations, and through faith keep them in right standing with God.

Probably the most important day within these ceremonies was the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. This was the day that the priest, the people, and the nation was atoned, or made right with God. The most interesting aspect of this ceremony was the scapegoat. The very last thing to be done.

Two goats were actually brought before the people. One was sacrificed. The other would hold a very different responsibility. The blood from the sacrificed goat and an earlier sacrificed bull would be spattered on the second goat. Then the priest would place his hands on the goat’s head. He would confess the sins of the people, symbolically passing them onto the goat.

Then, a man would be chosen to lead the goat into the wilderness. The scapegoat would be released and the sins of the people would be forgiven for another year. Symbolically, this goat carried the weight of the sins of a nation into isolation for their salvation.

The goat had not sinned. But it was cast out with the sins of others on its head.

My Thoughts From the Bar

To be clear, I haven’t been living downtown throughout the entire revitalization efforts. In fact, when I moved here the Downtown Project had already become highly criticized, and had reshaped its organization and goals. The “return on community” was now a “return on investment.”

Also, I do not personally know Tony Hsieh. Downtown Faith is not funded, supported, or guided by the Downtown Project in any way. We have no affiliation other than both being for and in downtown Las Vegas. Within the book there’s a tension around the group of close “followers” of Hsieh and it’s referred to as “cult-like.” Recently someone thought Downtown Faith might be the inevitable, religious outcome of the cult. We are not.

One more thing, I’m grateful for those who have invested heavily and worked to revitalize a city I love. My wife and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. We have experienced so much of the community aspect dreamed of by Hsieh and others at the onset of the project. We want the best for Hsieh, Zappos, Downtown Project, and the downtown community. We’re here to help!

Now, back to the night at the bar. Aimee did a wonderful job of balancing her perspective as subjectively desiring the success of the restoration project and objectively reporting on the people, the choices, and the ultimate failure to reach its original goals. This isn’t easy.

As we moved to the audience Q&A portion of the evening something changed in the room. I felt tensions rise. Tones become increasingly harsh. Questions become more and more leading and eventually turned into statements, accusation, and stone throwing. Hsieh was the target. It was all his failure in some way. Sure, the Downtown Project, Zappos, and others were on the target but people narrowed their angst down to a bulls-eye with Tony Hsiehs face on it.

I sat silently uncomfortable.

Words began to be thrown around like “gentrification.” People came across as self-righteous and without blame. It was his fault. All of it. Everything was somehow worse downtown because of him. Not better. His $350+ million investment was all for naught. And we weren’t looking at the people who spent that money. We weren’t looking at the leaders he hired. We weren’t discussing the greed, partying, and decadent lifestyle of those who clung to Hsieh and his money.

Aimee had mentioned this but the audience was more concerned with the sins of the many being placed on the one.

A Scapegoat Alternative

This is where “scapegoating” comes into play. We are all to happy to pass off our own laziness, greed, depravity, and more to someone else. Taking personal responsibility is hard. The weight is heavy. Our sins of omission are as great as those of commission and we would rather look at the wealthy visionary and let him carry the load.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the scapegoat from Yom Kippur. The blood on its back. The weight of the sins of the people on its head. Isolation its future. Groth mentioned how Hsieh had become more secluded and isolated within the Airstream Village than in earlier years. I’ve heard that from others.

Of course he’s isolated. The critics have faulted him alone.

No human being was designed to carry the weight of their own sins, much less the sins of others.

We weren’t built that way. It’s something and someone altogether that can bear that weight.

Yom Kippur is a picture, a signpost pointing to Jesus. He was something altogether different. Something extraordinary. He was able to bear the weight. In his humanity he begged his Father, God to remove that weight. But he surrendered his will. He carried the weight. He was bloodied on a Roman cross of execution. He was isolated in the grave.

The difference is he carried that weight, not for one year for one nation, but for all of time for all nations. Raising from the grave he defeated sin and death. He set himself apart from any and all other “messianic” efforts. He was different. He was extraordinary. He carried the weight.

Tony Hsieh doesn’t need to carry the weight of revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. He had a vision. He invested heavily. But he needs others to invest wisely and dream wildly. Not criticize. Not pass off our own wrongdoings. And I’ll end with this…we all need Jesus. No one any more than another. Only he was able to bear the weight of our sins and open a path to God.

We All Need A Scapegoat…Choose Wisely
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