Have you ever been made a scapegoat for others some time in your life? Most of us understand the term scapegoat and perhaps we are familiar with the origins of the term, but our modern understanding of this phenomena in human society is unavoidably shaped by the thinking of a French Christian thinker, René Girard who died this week aged in his 90s.
Girard made the observation that human beings have an almost unavoidable tendency towards violence against others, often directing that violence towards a single person or a particular group of people. Very often this tendency towards violence was a subconscious response to our own sense of failure, so rather than allow others to see our failure or weaknesses we pick on someone else – often whom we perceive as having weakness – and we even incite others to participate in that violence. Their willingness of others to collaborate in the violence makes our own sense of personal guilt or failure even less.
So, scapegoating is fundamentally about transferring our own sense of guilt for sin onto another so that they will take it away from me.
The selection of Scripture from Hebrews today (9:23-28) takes us straight into the annual ritual for the Jewish High Priest on the day they call Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. In this day various animals are sacrificed and prayers said confessing the sins of the nation over the past year and in a final ritual act of passing on those sins, the High Priest prays over a goat, transferring the sins of the nation to it and then it is chased off into the wilderness. Once the temple was built the practice was actually to chase the goat over a cliff to its death – so that it could not bring the sins back. Thus the nations had a fresh start – its sins were carried away.
The writer to the Hebrews and probably other early Christians recognised some similarity between that scapegoat and Jesus and he uses the imagery of the High Priestly rituals on the Day of Atonement to try and explain the early Christian conviction that this annual violence against the animals was no longer necessary – that God no longer held our sin as a barrier between us because Jesus’ death had put an end to it.
Girard goes so far as to say that Christianity is the only exit way from these violent tendencies among humans. He has a sociological way of speaking about it. We have a theological way of speaking about it. But at the heart of both explanations is the death of Jesus which does away with the need for further death.
What we understand about sin is that in and of ourselves we have no way of getting rid of it – indeed of its very essence it seems to keep us sinning even more. The Jewish Law and Sacrificial System provided ways for the temporary alleviation of our guilt and shame – but it did not free us from sin.
The reason we so often react with fear and violence to others – perhaps who seem different from us – is a failure to apprehend deep in our being that our sin has been dealt with. So we harbour this fear that the OTHER might show us up to be as bad as we feel we are. That leads us to do things that will lead others to see them as far worse persons than we are – then we can relax.
The early Christians, looking at what Jesus did, saw in him an extraordinary scapegoat. The religious leaders feared him and his message because they could see that he had a clearer and firmer relationship to God the Father than they thought they had – but they were the religious leaders. So they harassed him – ultimately to his death. The Roman authorities feared him because he seemed to make himself an alternative Lord to the Emperor.
So they harassed him to his death.
Others would have fought back, perpetuating the cycle of violence, but Jesus did not. And we stand with those early Christians in affirming that in this death – once for all – the cycle of guilt and sin and violence has come to an end.
Can you see how it works? Jesus the scapegoat has taken away the sin of the world – once and for all. We no longer carry the stain of sin and guilt in our lives, so when we stand alongside or in front of another fellow human being we don’t secretly think “They are better than me; I had better throw some mud at them to make me look good.” We stand proudly alongside them saying “I know we are both less than perfect – but in Christ we have both been cleansed of the stain of sin.” Thus the cycle of violence is broken. Thus humankind can be freed from its greatest scourge.
The letter to the Hebrews give us a whole suite of theological imagery to explain this and perhaps we are more familiar with that imagery and language. But at the heart of it all is this fundamental truth that in the death of Jesus, we are freed from the cycle of sin and violence that once imprisoned us, and that we are freed from it once and for all. That is the good news we call the Gospel of Christ.