Leviticus 16 describes the ingenious ritual from which our word “scapegoating” originated. On the Day of Atonement, a priest laid hands on an “escaping” goat, placing all the sins of the Jewish people from the previous year onto the animal. Then the goat was beaten with reeds and thorns and driven out into the desert. And the people went home rejoicing, just as European Christians did after burning a supposed heretic at the stake, or white Americans did after the lynching of black men. Whenever the “sinner” is excluded, our ego is delighted and feels relieved and safe. It sort of works, but only for a while. Usually the illusion only deepens and becomes catatonic, blind, and repetitive—because of course, scapegoating did not really work to eliminate the evil in the first place.
Jesus became the scapegoat to reveal the universal lie of scapegoating.
Note that John the Baptist said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin [singular] of the world” (John 1:29). It seems “the sin of the world” is ignorant hatred, fear, and legitimated violence.
The Gospel is a highly subversive document. It painstakingly illustrates how the systems of both church and state (Caiaphas and Pilate) conspired to condemn Jesus. Throughout most of history, church and state have both sought plausible scapegoats to carry their own shame and guilt.
Jesus became the sinned-against one to reveal the hidden nature of scapegoating and so that we would see how wrong people in authority can be—even religious important people (see John 16:8-11 and Romans 8:3).
The scapegoat mechanism largely operates in the unconscious; people do not know what they are doing. Scapegoaters do not know they are scapegoating, but they think they are doing a “holy duty for God” (John 16:2). You see why inner work, shadow work, and honest self-knowledge are all essential to any healthy religion.
In worshiping Jesus as the scapegoat, Christians should have learned to stop scapegoating. We too could be utterly wrong about choosing victims, just as high priest and king, Jerusalem and Rome—the highest levels of authority—were utterly wrong about Jesus. Power itself is not a good guide, yet for many, if not most people, authority soothes their anxiety and relieves their own responsibility to form a mature conscience.
Millions of soldiers have given their only lives by believing the lies of Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler, to name a few. The vast majority of violence in history has been sacralized violence. Members of ISIS probably believe they are doing God’s will. The Ku Klux Klan uses the cross as their symbol!
With God on our side, our violence becomes necessary and even “redemptive violence.” But there is no such thing as redemptive violence. Violence doesn’t save; it only destroys in both short and long term. Jesus replaced the myth of redemptive violence with the truth of redemptive suffering. He showed us on the cross how to hold the pain and let it transform us, rather than pass it on to the others around us.
— Richard Rohr
*These thoughts were originally adapted from three of Richard’s Daily Meditations. Sign up for them here.