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Stepping in the Scapegoat Manure Pile

René Girard was a French anthropologist and philosopher who applied the image of the scapegoat to social interactions.[1]

He borrowed the image from the Bible. The scapegoat was to carry the communal sins of the Old Testament people out into the wilderness. (Lev 16:7-10)

Girard theorized that as conflict in a society or between individuals reaches destructive levels, human beings look to diffuse that conflict by casting the blame on a third party. He reasoned that humans are often unable to engage in self-awareness that recognizes and accepts responsibility in a conflict. It is much more comfortable to find a scapegoat, someone to blame for our misfortune.

We don’t have to endorse every aspect of Girard’s social theory to recognize that the scapegoat mechanism is alive and well in our day and probably in our very souls.

Remember Caiaphas? He recognized that, in order to avoid destruction by the Romans, someone needed to die in place of the nation. He didn’t realize how true his words were. They became prophetic.

Jesus bore our sin, but there’s a real danger when we lay the blame for our social ills on someone else and fail to honestly examine our role.

Consider Adam. His gender scapegoating was so obvious that it makes us cringe: “It was the woman you gave me. She gave me the fruit and I ate.”

I’ve been surprised at how deeply the scapegoat mechanism is rooted in my own soul. Seeing it in others makes me even more aware.

Countries that have been decimated by war or poverty often cast the blame on the more powerful and more advanced nations. There is an element of truth in that. Powerful nations often contribute to conflicts and wars. But they also make convenient scapegoats when it is difficult to deal with the internal factions that tear a nation apart.

And we’re not immune. After all, it was China that caused Corona. Right???

In politics, Conservatives think all will be well if we just get rid of those liberals. Liberals would like to do away with the conservatives too. Our economic, social, moral, ethical woes all come from those people on the other side of the political or social spectrum. That’s gotten worse in recent years.

There’s scapegoating between races and genders. Unfortunately, it seems the oppressed are not immune to the phenomenon. Somehow, it’s easier to accept that an oppressed race blames its oppressors, but the scapegoating mechanism has a way of weaving those oppressed groups into a web of bitterness and blame. While we must not discount the wrong done, it would be much better that the oppressors own what they did, seeking forgiveness and restitution. That step can begin a process of healing the breach.

What about Christians?

Are the atheists really destroying our country?

The Muslims?

The liberals?

The immigrants?

The hedonists?


Christians step right into the scapegoat manure pile…and it smells awful.

Jesus performed heart surgery on Peter. By “heart” I mean the soul’s command center, the source of our thoughts, attitudes and actions. Peter denied three times, just as Jesus said. When the cock crowed, Jesus looked at Peter (Lk 22:61) and I’m guessing that’s when the scapegoat mechanism went bust. Peter wept bitterly. Could Peter have found a scapegoat? The soldiers, the long, sleepless night, the fleeing disciples, the Jewish leaders, and on and on? He could have but he didn’t. Later, when Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, Peter was ready and Jesus was able to restore him completely.

Following Jesus means facing ourselves. It means refusing to grab the speck in my brother’s eye when a plank is protruding from my own. (I love Jesus’ sense of humor there, don’t you?)

We never get better as individuals or as a society if we don’t seek out and deal with the real reasons for our divisions, weaknesses, incapacities and sin. We must face it, owning our responsibility in it.

This season of Lent coupled with the isolation of Corona, might be the perfect time.

David had it right: “Against you and you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” (Psalm 51:4)

4 April 2020 Bellingham, Washington

[1] Father Robert Barron in his Lenten Gospel Reflections (Word on Fire, 2001) mentions Girard and his scapegoat theory, relating it to Caiaphas, p. 132. That reflection was one impetus for this entry.

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