Charlie's Blog: The Scapegoat


The Scapegoat

But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat.

In ancient Greece, they had a practice where a victim was chosen. This may have been a slave or a criminal or a crippled person. This person was known as the pharmakos (φαρμακός). They would beat this person severely and drive him away into the wilderness and into exile. This person would bear the guilt of the community, and the hope was that his mistreatment and being driven away would appease the anger of the gods and end the crisis. The Israelites were more humane as they chose an animal for this purpose. This goat would later be known by English translators of the Bible as the "scapegoat" derived from the fact that this was the "escaping goat." The term has become a permanent part of the English language to denote anyone who takes the blame for the sins of others.

This scapegoat phenomenon is present in virtually every society and in many contexts from politics to workplaces to families. The philosopher René Girard has much to say on the subject of the scapegoat and the scapegoating mechanism. Here is a quotation from Wikipedia on Girard's scapegoat thesis:
If two individuals desire the same thing, there will soon be a third, then a fourth. This process quickly snowballs. Since from the beginning the desire is aroused by the other (and not by the object) the object is soon forgotten and the mimetic conflict transforms into a general antagonism. At this stage of the crisis the antagonists will no longer imitate each other's desires for an object, but each other's antagonism. They wanted to share the same object, but now they want to destroy the same enemy. So, a paroxysm of violence would tend to focus on an arbitrary victim and a unanimous antipathy would, mimetically, grow against him. The brutal elimination of the victim would reduce the appetite for violence that possessed everyone a moment before, and leaves the group suddenly appeased and calm. The victim lies before the group, appearing simultaneously as the origin of the crisis and as the one responsible for this miracle of renewed peace. He becomes sacred, that is to say the bearer of the prodigious power of defusing the crisis and bringing peace back. Girard believes this to be the genesis of archaic religion, of ritual sacrifice as the repetition of the original event, of myth as an account of this event, of the taboos that forbid access to all the objects at the origin of the rivalries that degenerated into this absolutely traumatizing crisis. This religious elaboration takes place gradually over the course of the repetition of the mimetic crises whose resolution brings only a temporary peace. The elaboration of the rites and of the taboos constitutes a kind of empirical knowledge about violence.
Basically, the scapegoat brings about a reconciliation and a peace in people. I know of a person who worked at a place that experienced an intense crisis. Though he was not the cause of the crisis and actually worked to help resolve the crisis, this company fired this individual in an act that still boggles the mind almost a decade later. Why did they fire this guy? What would it change? How would it fix anything? It didn't except to make the ones guilty feel a measure of peace and control in laying a lick on the innocent and driving him out. In light of the scapegoat mechanism, their actions make peculiar sense.

This same fellow is also the black sheep of his family. He did not want to be the black sheep of his family as he appeared to be the least likely candidate for the position. He resisted it, but this family willed it. So, he accepted it and went into the wilderness never to return. His brother was mystified by it all, yet he was the one given the wise words from God to say to the scapegoat. "I don't know why you left and why you don't talk to us anymore, but I have to admit that it feels more peaceful with you gone." And that is why the scapegoat must go never to return. He took away the sins of the family. They are his to bear now. He makes the atonement they could not make.

If all of this sounds like the story of Christ, you would be correct. Christ was spotless and without blemish, yet "He paid a debt that He did not owe for those who owed a debt they could not pay." In suffering on the cross, Jesus became the scapegoat and reconciled humanity with God. He bore the sins of His people. Now, there is a path of peace back to God.

The scapegoat mechanism still exists to this day. The Germans blamed the Jews for their troubles and gave us the Holocaust. The whites blamed the blacks in America and gave us Jim Crow. Today, people blame immigrants for the demise of America. Somewhere, someone must take the blame. And when someone does take the blame, that scapegoat suffers the injustice, and this leaves the guilty parties with nowhere to go. This brings a moment of peace and reflection and the self-knowledge that we are the sinners. It allows us to hate ourselves for what we are and still live. In that moment of peace, we can choose to repent and move toward the good and the true. Or, we can double down and strike the other cheek and be lost forever.

It is important for Christians to understand the scapegoat mechanism because this is the role that we play as living sacrifices in this valley of tears. By enduring injustice with patience, we give the world a moment to come to its senses. The moment that Jesus gave us is the Christian era, and it is our last chance before Judgment Day. When Jesus comes again, the books will be settled forever, and people will answer for what they have done. This is why everyone needs to repent while there is still time. The heart of Jesus overflows with mercy for repentant sinners. He just asks for them to repent. If the tale of the scapegoat moves you to sadness and grief, take that sadness and grief and offer it up. You have come to your senses and can be set free.