Scapegoating and the Cross
A Temporary Solution
Monday, March 29, 2021
The word “scapegoating” originated from an ingenious ritual described in Leviticus 16. According to Jewish law, on the Day of Atonement, the high 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, driven out into the desert, and the people went home rejoicing. Violence towards the innocent victim was apparently quite effective at temporarily relieving the group’s guilt and shame. The same scapegoating dynamic was at play when European Christians burned supposed heretics at the stake, and when white Americans lynched Black Americans. In fact, the pattern is identical and totally non-rational.
Whenever the “sinner” is excluded, our collective ego is delighted and feels relieved and safe. It works, but only for a while, because it is merely an illusion. Repeatedly believing the lie, that this time we have the true culprit, we become more catatonic, habitually ignorant, and culpable—because, of course, scapegoating never really eliminates evil in the first place. As Russian philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  As long as the evil is “over there,” we can change or expel someone else as the contaminating element. We then feel purified and at peace. But it is not the peace of Christ, which “the world cannot give” (see John 14:27).
Jesus became the scapegoat to reveal the universal lie of scapegoating. He became the sinned-against one to reveal the hidden nature of scapegoating, so that we would see how wrong even educated and well-meaning people can be. This is perfectly represented by Pilate and Caiaphas (state and religion), who both find their artificial reasons to condemn him (see John 16:8–11 and Romans 8:3).
In worshiping Jesus as the scapegoat, Christians should have learned to stop scapegoating, but we didn’t. We are still utterly wrong whenever we create arbitrary victims to avoid our own complicity in evil. It seems it is the most effective diversionary tactic possible. History has shown us that authority itself is not a good guide. Yet for many people, authority soothes their anxiety and relieves their own responsibility to form a mature conscience. We love to follow someone else and let them take the responsibility. It is a universal story line in history and all cultures.
With the mistaken view of God as a Punisher-in-Chief that most Christians seem to hold, we think our own violence is necessary and even good. But there is no such thing as redemptive violence. Violence doesn’t save; it only destroys all parties in both the 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.
 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, I–II, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (Harper & Row: 1974), 168.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, CONSPIRE 2016: Everything Belongs, sessions 2 and 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2016).
Story from Our Community:
I derive so much solace from Richard’s daily missives. Abuse from my father and mother as a child has driven embittered retaliation throughout my life. We deny our pain, sins, and suffering and project them elsewhere. Until we are enlightened by grace, we don’t even see the scapegoating. Recently I received my first “all clear” after cancer, which shed light on what mattered most—the love of my wife and daughters, love I never had when small. God bless Richard Rohr for his fine work and all of us making effort. —Tim T.