Victims, Perpetrators, and the Good Scapegoat

I’m convinced that in this time and place in culture the message of Jesus as the Scapegoat of God who ends the pattern of violence in the world is needed as desperately as the more familiar message of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The Pattern Perpetuates

I’ve sat through more than one training course for creating safe spaces for children in public environments. One thing you learn in these training courses is a common factor about the backgrounds of most child abusers: they were abused as children themselves. As the truism goes, most abusers of children were abused as children themselves. But thankfully, the other half of the truism is that most abused children will not grow to be abusers themselves. In the kindness and mercy of God, humans can find resilience and develop antifragility. And such victims can grow to be more keen toward and vigilant against such injustices than the average person. The outcomes are uncertain and remain long hidden.

There is potentially great folly in trotting out the victims of grievous sins and crimes and establishing them publicly as the unimpeachable figureheads of their own causes. Doing such things with genuine victims is a dangerous gamble that sometimes pays off and other times proves amass tragedy upon tragedy. The folly in doing so is one side of a two-sided coin. The victim of something heinous has higher than average possibilities for two things: 1.) being an ardent effective advocate for the cause of defending and preventing future victims of the same injustices, and 2.) being the next generation of victimizer in a vicious cycle of perpetuating further injustices.

And those are not mutually exclusive possibilities. An individual can enact both of them simultaneously. It is the temptation of a life lived as a professional victim—victimizing other with vindictive bitterness.

The professional victim is someone who is consumed by victimhood as a mark of identity and a source of power in a reversal of circumstances. Fueled by bitterness, professional victims go beyond mere cries for empathy to emotionally blackmail other people. Playing the victim card is used shut down personal responsibility and thwart actual justice. This is the truth behind the truism: hurting people hurt people. Some hurting people merely hurt others by accident. Some hurting people become so embittered that they hurt others on purpose while not even viewing it that way. One can be a professional victim, and one can be an advocate of professional victims.

Victimization is real. Traumatization is real. Traumatized victims need sympathy and wise pastor care that shows due sensitivity while smartly ministering a long-term course of resilience. All this is deeply true. But professional victimhood is a sad reality as well.

Victimizers are not bizarre monstrous aberrations of our species, which is an otherwise benign and good-natured lifeform. They come from somewhere. They are the product of something. The general willful ignorance of the relationship between being victims and becoming perpetrators in our culture is an exercise in insanity.

And how dare I say “they” as if “they” isn’t all of us in the final analysis?

We thoroughgoingly Augustinian Christians let no one off the hook. We darn well know every last one of us is both a victim and a perpetrator of our own sin upon ourselves and others. In truth, each of us is simul victima et commissor—at the same time, a victim and a perpetrator. And there’s only one way to break that cycle.

As my friend put it:

If you do not take your victimhood to the Cross, you will victimize someone else in your bitterness and contempt for your oppressor.

Christ is the Great and True Victim sent from on High. And he is the ultimate Girardian Scapegoat for a whole world’s worth of misdirected anxieties, shame, blame, bitterness, resentment, and so forth. All of that victimization pours out from the mass of victimized perpetrators called the offspring of Adam.

We must bring our victimhood to Christ, where it is nailed to the cross and buried in the tomb with our Lord. And we must daily reckon ourselves to be vindicated conquerors in the one who sits enthroned at the right hand of God and is conquering all his enemies.

The Pattern Terminates

Christ in the role of scapegoat has some parallels or counterparts to the role of shepherd. In some respects, it’s only a matter of the point of view. Christ is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep as he himself teaches. In the eyes of his sheep, that’s who he is and what he does.

But in the eyes of the religious leaders during the days of his flesh, he was the scapegoat, the man clearly to be blamed for everything and who needed to die so the nation would survive as Caiaphas prophesied. Christ was the one upon who the unbelieving religious leadership and their riotous mob heaped their collective anxieties, paranoia, suspicions, prejudices, projected guilt, and systemic shame.

In his book The Scapegoat, author René Girard unpacks his “mimetic theory of violence” and the scapegoat mechanism. He explores ancient mythological tales and shows their parallels to what happened to Jesus in the Gospels. The myths and the Gospels are both persecution narratives.

The ancient myths were told from the perspective of the persecutors as they perceived their victim to be the indisputable source of all societal ills, plagues, failing crops, and so forth. Therefore, the victim’s death is obviously justified. It’s virtually his civic duty to die in light of his heinous transgression against the peace and welfare of the community. Of course, the ‘culprit’ must be compelled to confess his guilt so all is neatly in order before he’s properly executed. And with his death, peace and abundance are restored.

However, the Gospels tell the persecution narrative from the perspective of the victim and his allies. The hysterical mob’s anxiety-laden irrationality (otherwise disguised as solemn, serious, and severe sensibility in the self-delusion of the persecutors) is shown plainly for what it is. An innocent man bears the blame and frustration of the people.

In Girard’s framework, the scapegoat mechanism as it commonly functions isn’t seen for what it actually is by those writhing in the throes of mimetic violence. But in the case of Christ and in the shadows of the Old Testament, the scapegoat is called out by name. It abides as an understood reality in the liturgical life of ancient Israel. It was known that a ritual of “scapegoating” was being enacted as a source of comfort to the community, and this was a rite instituted by God for the assurance of the people (Leviticus 16).

On yom kippurim (the “day of coverings”) two goats were brought forward in the sight of the whole assembly of Israel, and lots were cast regarding the goats. One goat was “for Yahweh”, and it was slain. Its blood was sprinkled upon the kapporet (the “mercy seat” or “footstool of placation”), overshadowed by the wings of golden cherubim and resting atop the Ark of the Covenant in the most holy place deep within the heart (or rather at the very summit) of the tabernacle.

The other goat was “for Azazel” (meaning “for utter removal”), and it was expelled alive from the camp of the people of God, never to return. All year every year, the follies and weaknesses of the people flowed up the ceremonial system as a great accumulator of sin and unrest, gathering upon the high priest as the ceremonial head and representative of the assembly in the eyes of Yahweh. On the Day of Coverings, the high priest pressed his hands on the goat for Azazel and confessed over it all the failings of the people, ritually heaping the holy community’s guilt upon the scapegoat. All the community’s attendant anxieties psychologically flowed with the impartation of their guilt onto the scapegoat. The goat was then lead out into the wilderness to Azazel, to utter expulsion. The people were ritually assured as they saw their sins and fears carried away into the wilderness.

Christ the Incarnate Son in himself is the entirety of the worship and offering system of the Old Testament in its fulfillment. We see this in a number of ways. For instance, he is both the Lamb of God who’s slain and the Great High Priest who offers his own blood up to God to purge our sins, cleansing us from all unrighteousness. Likewise, he’s the Great High Priest gathering up our sins and anxieties, and he’s the True Scapegoat, heaping the failures and attendant anguish upon himself and bearing it away from us. It’s important to understand the Good Scapegoat’s service as being more than the bearing away of our judicial guilt. It’s also the expulsion of psychological anxiety. We are called to cast all of our anxieties upon him, because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). So, this is our Great High Priest’s ministry of compassion to us and his pastoral care for us as the Good Shepherd who cares for the Flock of God.

In this, we’re called to imitate our Lord. The Church, the Body of Christ, are those who by God’s grace bear the anxieties of others in our ministry as we are given for the life of the world. And we must come to Christ, the Head of the Body, with all our gathered anxieties. The Good Scapegoat will bear them all away into utter expulsion, and he’ll give us blessed assurance that we have peace with God and with one another.

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