Jesus and the Cross
The Scapegoat Mechanism
Friday, February 8, 2019
The scapegoating ritual described in Leviticus 16 offers a helpful perspective on Jesus’ death. On the “Day of Atonement” the high priest, Aaron, was instructed to symbolically lay all the sins of the people on one unfortunate goat, and the people would then beat the animal until it fled into the desert. It was a vivid symbolic act that helped to unite and free the children of Israel. Instead of owning their faults, this ritual allowed people to export them elsewhere—in this case onto an innocent animal.
The image of the scapegoat powerfully mirrors the universal, but largely unconscious, human need to transfer our guilt onto something or someone else by singling that other out for unmerited negative treatment. French philosopher and historian René Girard (1923–2015) demonstrated that the scapegoat mechanism is foundational for the formation of most social groups and cultures. We need another group to be against to form our group! For example, many in the United States scapegoat refugees who are seeking asylum, falsely accusing them of being criminals. This pattern is seen in many facets of our society and our private, inner lives—so much so that we might call it “the sin of the world” (note that “sin” is singular in John 1:29).
We humans largely hate or blame almost anything else rather than recognize our own weaknesses and negativity. “She made me do it.” “He is guilty.” “He deserves it.” “They are the problem.” “They are evil.” We seldom consciously know that we are scapegoating or projecting. It’s automatic, ingrained, and unconscious. As Jesus said, people literally “do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
We hate our own imperfections in other people, and sadly we often find the best cover for that projection in religion. God and religion, I am afraid, have been used to justify most of our violence and to hide from the shadow parts of ourselves that we would rather not admit. Yet Jesus revealed the pattern two thousand years ago. “When anyone kills you, they will think they are doing a holy duty for God,” he said (John 16:2).
The Scriptures call such ignorant hatred and killing “sin,” and Jesus came precisely to “take away” (John 1:29) our capacity to commit it—by exposing the lie for all to see. Jesus stood as the fully innocent one who was condemned by the highest authorities of both “church and state” (Jerusalem and Rome), an act that should create healthy suspicion about how wrong even the highest powers can be. Maybe power still does not want us to see this. Much of Christianity shames individuals for private sins while lauding public figures in spite of their pride, greed, gluttony, lying, killing, or narcissism.
As John puts it, “He will show the world how wrong it was about sin, about who was really in the right, and about true judgment” (John 16:8). This is what Jesus exposes and defeats on the cross. He did not come to change God’s mind about us. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change our minds about God—and about ourselves—and about where goodness and evil really lie.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 149-151.