The Scapegoat to End All Scapegoats
March 25, 2020
Fourth in the Lenten series, “Why Did Jesus Die?”
A friend of mine recently told me about a conversation she’d had in the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis we’re facing right now. Let’s call my friend Anne. Anne and a friend of hers were making plans to go out to eat, and she suggested a place in Chinatown. Anne’s friend told her she would go to any other neighborhood in the city, but not there. She then described her view of Chinatown – that it is dirty and a hub of illegal immigration and likely very virus-infected right now. Anne and her friend both grew up in America, but Anne’s ancestors are East Asian, and her friend’s are West African. Anne tried to reason with her friend, that Chinatown hadn’t had any documented cases of coronavirus, that the restaurants are great, and that they are needlessly hurting for business right now because of people’s negative associations with all things Chinese. But the only thing that changed Anne’s friend’s perspective at all was when Anne reminded her how awful some people treated her during the Ebola crisis a few years back, when some people associated West Africans with their fears of disease.
My friend’s conversation is not unusual these days, or really throughout human history. Right now, there are widespread reports of stigmatizing of and violence against Asian Americans. Humans have often done this kind of thing in times of fear and outbreaks of illness. Shamefully, many 14th century Christians blamed the Black Plague on Jews, spreading lies that they had poisoned wells. There is something in our species that longs to find blame for our problems outside of ourselves, and that looks for external scapegoats to punish or ostracize when we face fear or tension.
There is a whole field of study of this phenomenon. It is called scapegoat theory. The term dates back to the Levitical law, where there is provision for a priest to symbolically place the blame for the whole nation’s sins upon a blameless goat. That goat was cast out into the wilderness, symbolically removing the blame and shame of the people from their midst.
Twentieth century literary critic and historian Renee Girard and other scholars have helped us to see the universality of scapegoating in the human experience. Ancient legends and founding stories of societies often include tales of violence, through which evil is averted. Sacrifices of animals and gods and sometimes even children are nearly ubiquitous in ancient religious practice. There is something in us that needs to externalize our fears, and find blame for what threatens us outside of ourselves and our people.
Of course, there are some serious downsides to this habit of ours. But let me name just two – it doesn’t work, and it is a horrible moral evil.
Scapegoating doesn’t heal. When nations blame members of an ethnic group for the spread of a disease, no one gets healthier. When insecure pre-teens tease peers who seem vulnerable or different, they don’t suddenly find inner peace and security. Kill all the animals you want, and you don’t produce more life, health, or safety for your species. Scapegoating produces a strong, sometimes exhilarating, sense of relief for a community. At last, a cause of blame and an outlet for aggression is found! But like most highs, it passes quickly, and the problems remain.
More importantly, scapegoating is violent, cruel, and unjust. It might start with labelling a virus after an ethnicity, a simple change of a word that takes our fears of sickness and economic loss and places the blame far away, on a global adversary. From there, though, businesses and people are avoided. Then they are spat upon, and eventually beaten or worse. This is the current impact of the use of the phrase “Chinese virus” and in various forms, it has been the story of Christian scapegoating of Jews for centuries. Call someone a Christ killer, and it’s not long before you start killing them yourself.
But the thing is, we are either all Christ killers, or none of us are. From a purely forensic point of view, the Roman empire and its machinery of criminal injustice killed Jesus. From a theological perspective, though, we all did, and perhaps God did as well. The gospel of John and the book of Revelation represent Jesus as a sacrificial lamb, an innocent victim who removes humanity’s sin and blame. The New Testament letter entitled Hebrews understands Jesus to be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. We could read this from God’s perspective – that our creator requires sacrifice to find peace with humanity. Sometimes the Bible implies this might be true of God. Yet at other times, it mocks this perspective. Why would God need us to kill a cow or a lamb – let alone a person?
We do better when we read all this sacrifice from a human perspective. What if we’re the ones that needed all that death and bloodshed? What if our consciences and fears cry out for a place to lay the blame for our guilt and death? From this reading, God condescends in empathy to our need, first in the sacrifice of animals and eventually in the sacrifice of Godself.
When our very God becomes our scapegoat, some radical shifts occur. Pretty much nobody – believer or not – looks at a crucifix and thinks: that Jesus got what he deserved! Rightfully read, the gospels shift our sympathies from the fearful, scapegoating mob to the innocent, scapegoated victim. They don’t just let the scapegoated speak, but align the falsely accused with the divine. Jesus the sacrificial lamb cries out: Do unto God, what you need to stop doing to one another.
Devotion to a scapegoated God opens up three healthier postures for our insecurity and anxiety.
When things are worst in us and in our world, when we most need someone or something to blame, the memory of Jesus’ death invites us to believe that God has not abandoned us but is with us still. Devotion to a crucified God dares us to in some sense lay the blame for all our problems on God’s shoulders, rather than casting about for a human scapegoat. Morally, God may be innocent, but emotionally and psychically, God would rather bear the blame for our problems than having us continually blame one another.
Secondly, when God becomes our scapegoat, we are freed to turn our energies inward. We can practice Jesus’ teaching to stop trying to pull the speck from our neighbor’s eye and spend some time on the planked lodged within our own. Scapegoating always fosters simplistic, other-focused blame for our shared problems. Our sickness, our lack, our anxieties must be some far-off politician’s fault, or the fault of some far-off country or people group or social class. But what if all this fault-finding gets us nowhere? What if a more nuanced, introspective, humble way forward in life is more likely to move us toward health and peace?
And lastly, when Jesus becomes our scapegoat, there is an invitation, even a command, to break the cycle. Through his solidarity with all innocent victims, Jesus’ blood cries out: No more! When we blame others for our problems, when we curse them or wish or do them harm, we have ourselves become what we call others: an infection, a killer of God and others, and a scourge against our own human race. It’s time to stop.