The Death of Jesus: The Scapegoat for Everyone (Mark 15:21-39)

(Based on the writings of Debbie Blue and Rene Girard)

The concept of scapegoat goes back to Leviticus 16 in the Hebrew Scriptures. Originally it referred to the goat upon which Aaron, the priest and brother of Moses, symbolically placed the sins of the people of Israel on the Day of Atonement. The goat was then driven out into the wilderness away from the community taking the people’s sins with him. 

In this article I want to focus on a meaning of the word ‘scapegoat” which is so prevalent in our day. The popular meaning of scapegoat is an innocent person or innocent group chosen to bear the blame and guilt of others. We humans have a tendency to project our mistakes, weaknesses, sin, and guilt onto others and as a result, we feel compelled to persecute and punish these innocents. Every society has had scapegoats. It’s interesting to me that in our society scapegoating usually happens in times of economic uncertainty. When we are secure and have plenty or at least enough, we are relatively tolerant. But when the difficult times come, we seek someone to blame. 

One of the ways we establish belonging in our society is to gang up on someone or some vulnerable group. This belonging makes us feel superior and allows us to hide in the group so our own weaknesses will not be exposed. 

But scapegoating has another dimension besides just blaming others in bad times. We see this dimension quite early in children. Children are prone to pick one child to harass, bully, and make fun of. And in doing so, they band together as a group. Other children who may want to belong to what may seem the “in-crowd” join the group. In subtler and more sophisticated ways, we do the same as adults. One of the ways we establish belonging in our society is to gang up on someone or some vulnerable group. This belonging makes us feel superior and allows us to hide in the group so our own weaknesses will not be exposed. 

Scapegoating is not something that occurs just now and then. It almost seems to be a permanent characteristic of our very humanity. In many ways we base our society on this ritual. We construct our goodness over against some other person, philosophy, or way of being. And, of course, that something is always something we are not a part of. 

It’s almost as though we can’t get beyond this sin of scapegoating.  We find it difficult to create community or to be unified apart from being over against someone or some group. We don’t know how to feel good about ourselves without defining our goodness over against someone else’s badness or otherness. 

And behind all of this scapegoating is the conscious or subconscious thought that the world really would be better if we got rid of certain people. That’s what Hitler thought about the Jews. That’s what many racists think about people of color. That’s what a lot of people, some claiming to be Christian, think about the lgbtq community. That’s also what my parents’ generation thought about communists. Or maybe we have a gentler thought which would rid us of those we would rather not have around us. Sometimes I wish we could divide the world into two parts: in one part would be the sane, nice people like me and the other part of the world could be reserved for all the crazies, bigots, and warmongers. But, if I’m honest, some days I’m not sure which half I would be in!

So, is this way the world must always be? The same story over and over from a thousand different perspectives with millions of victims? And what is tragic is how sometimes the church has used the death of Jesus to scapegoat others. For over 1500 years the church has persecuted Jews as scapegoats. Jews have been labeled “Christ-killers” and have been subject to anti-Semitism, inquisitions, pogroms, the Holocaust, the KKK, etc. Christians have even scapegoated other Christians. Their thinking goes something like this: “If you don’t interpret the Bible, the death of Jesus, the end of time, the Virgin Birth, or the chapters at the beginning of Genesis the way I do, you’re not Christian. You are a dangerous heretic and, therefore, my enemy. In fact, you are Christ’s enemy. If you can’t believe the way I do, the world is better off without you. Of course, we’re on God’s side and God is on our side. And it’s us again them, right against wrong, heaven against hell.” Whenever the church has thought this way, whether in violent ways like the Holocaust or in much more subtle ways through our thoughts, speech, and attitudes, we are continuing the same old tired, divisive, and destructive pattern which has plagued this planet for thousands of years. 

We project our fears and our sin onto others, and we bind ourselves to people who have the same fears and the same secrets. 

In our defense, we claim we hate the sin and evil, but love the sinner and evildoer. Yes, we should hate evil and sin (beginning with the evil and sin in ourselves), but rarely can any of us escape hating those we define as evil and sinful. Too often the slogan “hate the sin, but love the sinner” is a copout. Most of us don’t have enough spiritual maturity and insight to distinguish between the two. And one of the main reasons we can’t distinguish between the two is that we see too much of ourselves in those we scapegoat. It’s not that others are so different from us—it’s because we are too much like they are. They remind us of our shadow selves, our hidden sin, our dark secrets. And so, to take the focus off of us, we lash out at them. We project our fears and our sin onto others, and we bind ourselves to people who have the same fears and the same secrets. 

What is amazing in Mark’s Gospel is how Jesus faced his death without unifying one group against another. He could have unified the crowd against the religious leaders or the Romans. People who are poor and weak are always predisposed to be against the powerful and privileged. He could have mobilized the Jews against the Romans or his followers against those who had rejected him. But that is not Mark’s story. It’s not the story of God unifying God’s people against the “baddies” of this world. It’s the story of all the people, the strong and the weak, the good and the bad, the pious and the pagans—all the people unifying against Jesus, the incarnation of God’s love in this world. Mark takes pains to make it clear that everyone, even the most unlikely allies conspired at some level in the crucifixion of Jesus. Mark even says that anyone who just happened to be passing by mocked Jesus.  The disciples themselves deny, betray, and abandon him. 

Although Jesus spoke powerfully against evil, in his death he becomes vulnerable to all—the good and the bad, the righteous and the sinners. At a very deep level he refuses to be against anyone. What he does do is this—he breaks the cycle of scapegoating. Instead, he becomes the scapegoat for everyone to define themselves over against. He becomes utterly vulnerable to all of them (and to all of us). In his death he reveals that God’s love is for the whole world. God in Christ comes to us all to scoop us up out of the death-dealing, death-making, repetitious monotony of the scapegoat cycle. Jesus’ Abba comes for all—for the disciples and the chief priests, for the Jews and the Romans, for the fickle crowds and the criminals, for Democrats and Republicans, for peace activists and warmongers, for Obama and Trump, for you and me. Is it possible that God comes in Christ not to condemn us or to justify Herself or to protect Her own reputation or to prove She is God? Is it possible that God comes to free us all (and I do mean ALL) from the tired, false story we use to construct our nations, communities, friendships, families, and our religions so we might join Her in that love? Ultimately, the story is not about the bad guys versus the good guys. As Pastor Debbie Blue puts it, It’s the story of God’s unconditional and never-ending love for all. It’s a story about Jesus absorbing, taking in all of our againstness, accepting all the death we have to hand out, all the fears that make it so impossible for us to be truthful and vulnerable, all the weakness that makes us mean. He takes it all. And he comes back unbelievably undefeated by it. He comes back, not vengeful and resentful, all hyped to form a new group against all other groups, all ready to get his army mobilized against the bad, stupid scapegoating people. He comes back again and again for them and for us, for me, for you, and for all. He comes back loving and forgiving and desiring for us to be in love with him and each other. He comes not to harden our hearts against anyone. He comes to break our hearts open for love, compassion, and forgiveness. He comes to reveal that our greatest unity can be found in the heart of God. 

God in Christ comes to us all to scoop us up out of the death-dealing, death-making, repetitious monotony of the scapegoat cycle.

The cross shows us that we cannot relieve our separateness by making a scapegoat; we cannot create love and unity based on being against others. This old mechanism/this old story will not work—it never has worked. Jesus came to begin a new story and a new creation. He died not to convict us of our sin, but to scoop us up for life lived and fed by a whole different fuel, something other than rivalry, scapegoating, vengeance, and violence. We are freed by the love and grace of God to stop building barriers and to begin melting them down as we share in God’s love. 

In Will Campbell’s autobiographical book entitled “Brother to a Dragonfly,” his friend asks Will to give the essence of the Christian faith in one sentence. Campbell’s answer was, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” This response was put to the test years later when Jonathan Daniel, a white seminary student who was registering blacks to vote in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, was shot and killed by a white, racist deputy sheriff named Thomas Coleman. Jonathan was unarmed and drinking a soft drink at a grocery store when the deputy shot him in cold blood. P. D. East asked Campbell, “Which one do you think God loves the most? Jonathan Daniel or Thomas Coleman? Do you still believe the essence of the gospel is “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway”? Will Campbell said that it was on that day with that question that everything about the gospel became clear after twenty years of ministry. At gut level, he finally realized how radical the good news of Jesus Christ really was. And that realization changed his whole way of ministering to his world. 

I don’t know about you, but most days I don’t want to hear the whole truth of the gospel—that God so loved the world—that God loves all of it and everyone in it. To God’s unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, and everlasting love, too many times I want to say, “Yes, but. . .” and then start scapegoating as I name all those kinds of people whom I can’t love, resent, or at least can’t understand how God could love them. But deep down I know that if God chooses not to love even one single human being, then how do I know God will not stop loving me or those I love? I want to love like Jesus, but at the same time I am afraid. And that’s when I hear the good news of the resurrection—the Risen Christ will keep coming to me, transforming me until one day I can join him in this new creation of love, life and light—where there are no more scapegoats and where I will finally learn that my salvation and the salvation of all my brothers and sisters are intertwined, connected forever in the heart of God. 

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