The End of Scapegoating (Some Handouts)

My Theologia class at Highland seems to be going well. Again, we are studying Mark Hem's book Saved from Sacrifice which gives a biblically-based, Girardian reading of the cross. (If this post confuses you, read my Voice of the Scapegoat Series.)

This week we finally reached the cross. I made a handout illustrating the unmasking of scapegoating violence we see in the Passion narratives. Borrowing from Girard and Heim, I called this illustration the on-stage story and the back-stage story of the Passion. The Passion narrative show both stories juxtaposed.

In the on-stage story, we see the classic scapegoating dynamic. During a politically and religiously volatile Passover week in Jerusalem, the Romans and the Jews find a scapegoat--Jesus of Nazareth--that will bring communal peace. In this, they are successful. We see in Luke's narrative Herod and Pilate, former enemies, are reconciled (i.e., the death of the scapegoat brings an "atonement" between them). Also, we see the claim of the High Priest--kill one to save many--vindicated. The "peace" and power structures are preserved by killing Jesus. In sum, the death of Jesus brings atonement, peace, and salvation.

But there is a deep, dark irony here. This is an old and wicked salvation. It is the peace and salvation that comes from bloodshed.

Juxtaposed to this "on-stage" story is the back-stage story, were we get to see the self-interested plotting and power grabs. Jesus isn't scapegoated because he's guilty of sedition and blasphemy (the two great sins across all ages). Those are the on-stage reasons, the publicly stated reasons. The real reason Jesus is scapegoated is human sin. Our lust for power and status drives us to bloodshed. These motives are exposed in the passion narratives by the declaration at each stage of the process that Jesus is innocent. This back-stage story--where we see the powers structures killing an innocent person for their own ends--is told alongside the on-stage story to expose the scapegoating machinery with its lies and obfuscations. This exposure leads to the Grand Indictment of Human Violence. And, in the face of this indictment, scapegoating violence must cease. This peace--the cessation of violence--is the true peace Jesus brings. It is a non-violent salvation. A salvation purchased with the blood of Jesus so that no more blood would be shed.

Here are the two sides of my handout illustrating the Girardian reading:

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8 thoughts on “The End of Scapegoating (Some Handouts)”

  1. so basically, (in order to make sure I read this right) Jesus died in order to make a final peace by exposing the "on-stage" story and rendering it impotent.

  2. I love the Girardian take on the atonement. It's theologically fascinating and, I think, quite profound.
    I do wonder though if it does justice to the biblical text. The theological analyses that the NT writers (and Jesus himself!) make of the cross seem comfortable saying that Jesus bore "God's wrath". Now, I personally think this is a very dangerous phrasing, but the Girardian reading, which essentially glosses over this aspect of the text, is only uncomfortably reconciled to the early Church's view that, in Christ, the power of death and sin are condemned, and that Jesus bore that punishment.
    I'm no fan of Reformed understandings of penal substitutionary atonement, but NT Wright and Andrew Perriman have done a good job of showing how at least a narrative version of the doctrine (in covenantal context) pervades the text.

  3. I should probably read Heim's book, because I am interested in this take on the cross. I, too, am uncomfortable with propitiatory atonement theory. My question about this "scapegoating" reading of the passion narrative is this: Jesus is not the first to be scapegoated in history--what makes his violent death so revelatory?


  4. Richard-

    I'm really loving this series in Theologica. What a great way to get this class started!

    Here is the question that was posed on Wednesday that interested me: "Okay, so I get that Jesus was supposed to be the scapegoat that ends scapegoating. But scapegoating hasn't stopped yet. It still happens. So should we call it a failure?"

    It seems to me that, at this point, you have to integrate this theology into an eschatology in which it is fully realized in the future (translation: an understanding that the effects of what Jesus did have yet to be fully experienced).

    My question now - and hopefully this is where the stuy is going - is: does Heim do this?

  5. I think if I were to teach this class, I would start with theories on sin and salvation. Heim does this a bit at the beginning of the book, saying that Eastern Christianity does not adopt the same PSA theology that most Western Christians do. I would elaborate on this, and first talk about the concept of sin. If you see sin as disobedience of God's divine commands for which he demands justice and retribution, then you will have a hard time with the view of salvation that arises from a Girardian reading of the cross. On the other hand, if you see sin as relational and contextual (i.e., actions that result in harming relationships) then the Girardian reading is an easier pill to swallow. For exposing scapegoating violence and ending sacrifice are the only redemptive things about the cross in Girard's view. Christian practice then becomes the solution to the problem of violence and rivalry in community that sacrifice addresses. Again, I think for this view of salvation to have any chance at understanding or acceptance, one has to start with the question of what one is being saved from exactly (i.e., sin).

  6. Richard, this is interesting to me as an Old Testament scholar because the "scapegoat" in the Day of Atonement ritual is not killed; rather, after the community has symbolically piled its sins on the "scapegoat," it is sent alive into the desert (presumably to be eaten by the "demon" Azazel). The goat of the purification offering (most English translations use the horribly misleading translation "sin offering"), which is slaughtered by the community, must be pure and without blemish, not metaphysically burdened with a whole bunch of sins conceptually dumped on it. Reading the crucifixion stories through the lens of the Day of Atonement ritual really messes with a lot of Christian substitionary atonement stuff.

  7. Richard,

    Your use of on- and off-stage illustrations is a wonderful introduction to Girard in helping your class reflect on God as love and perfect love casting out fear as gospel.

    You know I am a big fan of Girard, and that I view various forms of atonement theory (especially PSA) as inadequate, but . . .

    Part of the problem is that the history of and intellectual history of "scapegoating" and sacrifice is complex. I agree with Chris that Christians have all too often read their own anachronistic views back into Jewish ritual. Sacrifice and scapegoat are two different matters. Scapegoating is an expulsion, purification ritual. Girard uses it as it is commonly used: as a form of lynching, a manipulated mob attacking and killing an innocent because the presence of the innocent is perceived as disruptive of the (divinely blessed, per Girard,) social order. Girard argues that the Hebrew Bible (especially the prophets) and the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament reveal that humans rationalize their own violence by underwriting it with a theology of divine violence.

    Girard and a Girardian take on Scripture (and all writings for that matter) is very helpful in exposing the violence in us all and our efforts to divinely justify it. But Girard, as Chris, suggests doesn't always get at the heart of ancient understanding and practice.

    As you prepare for your class and discussion about PSA, you might be interested in reading Stephen Finlan's remarkable short book, PROBLEMS WITH ATONEMENT. It is a sterling piece of writing and scholarship. Readers of this blog will appreciate it as well. One quotation will suffice:

    "The fact is, both the problematic aspects of atonement AND the effective answer to those problems are found in the Bible. The Bible is part of the problem . . . and MOST of the solution. We have reached a stage in theological development when we need to acknowledge that the Bible is full of diverse viewpoints and admit that it is not likely to be a transcript straight from the mind of God, though it may indeed be the heavily filtered HUMAN reflection of the mind of God, a record of the gradual and partial human reception of God's initiatives." (96)



  8. Dr. Heard, correct me if I am wrong, but weren't the two goats chosen by lot, one to be sent out ast the scapegoat, the other to slaughtered? This suggests to me an arbitrary aspect (even, perhaps, ironic)that would also make many reformed/evangelical atonement theologians uncomfortable.

    I was preparing for Sunday's sermon (it's Pentecost Sunday) and was reflecting on how many in the pews have little sense of Pentecost as the Jewish Feast of Weeks. I think the same is true of atonement theology. Much of it is derived by people who were, in my opinion, far to Roman or Hellenistic, rather than Hebrew, in their sensibilities.

    Here is a question: what does Paul mean in ICor15 when he says "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" and in 2Cor5 when he says "God made him to be sin who knew no sin"? I would suggest that these two passages taken together refer to Leviticus 16. Christ died for our sins according to the concepts of the Jewish Day of Atonement, not according to some Roman courtroom or Feudal lord concept of justice.

    Y'all have a great sunday.

    Brian Krumnow

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