The Comfort of a Scapegoat

DATE: April 6, 2012 – Good Friday
SCRIPTURE: Isaiah 53: 4 - 12; John 19: 17 - 30
BY: Rev. Cynthia E. Robinson

When I was in eighth grade we had to read “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. If you’re not familiar with the story, it begins on a warm June morning in small town, about 300 people. Folks are gathering in the town square. The children are there first, restless with play, since school had released them for the summer. Then the men of the town gather, talking of planting and tractors and other sundry details of their lives. The women come from hanging laundry or other housework, calling to their children and husbands and soon family groups begin to form.

It’s Lottery Day. Mr. Summers, the lottery official, comes to the square carrying the lottery box, painted black and stuffed with little pieces of folded paper, bringing with him a list of all the families of the town. Just before Mr. Summers can get started, Tessie Hutchinson comes running up, saying she forgot what day it was. She joins her family and the lottery begins. The rules of the lottery and the last names of families are read out, family heads come forward in their turn and take a folded slip of paper out of the black box. Old Man Warner has been to every lottery. He puts down some scuttlebutt about another village giving up the lottery. “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” he reminds everyone. Everyone opens their slip of paper at the same time. Only one slip of paper has a big black dot on it and Bill Hutchinson has it. Tessie says it isn’t fair but no one sides with her.

There are five members of the Hutchinson family: Bill Jr., Nancy, little Davey, their father Bill and their mother Tessie. The slip of paper with the big black dot is placed back in the box along with four blank ones. Each of the Hutchinsons must now pick a slip of paper. When all have chosen, they unfold their paper slips and Tessie has the big black dot on her paper. Mr. Summers says, “All right, folks. Let’s finish quickly.”

Even though some of the ritual has been lost, they still remember to use stones. A pile of rocks had been put together earlier by the children. Tessie is in a cleared area now as the townspeople begin to throw the stones, until she is dead.

The practice of a scapegoat has been around for millennia. It has been used to purify a community before a king’s wedding, as a response to natural disasters or disease, or as in the story, to ensure a bountiful crop. In the Bible a goat was used to carry the sins of the people into the desert where it would perish. Jesus has been viewed as the scapegoat of the Christian faith, taking on the sins of humanity and atoning for them by dying on the cross.

The purpose of the scapegoat was, and still is, a release valve for people living in community. One animal, one person or a group of people are given the blame for whatever calamity or fear or ill-feeling or bad circumstance and they are then driven from the community, usually with some form of violence. Poverty is a form of violence. Usually the scapegoated group is a minority of some kind: different religious belief or skin color or sexual orientation or ethnic background or political stance or any kind of behavior that is different from the majority. Or the “bad apple” is blamed, rather than examining the bad apple barrel.

We have become so accustomed to the notion of a scapegoat that we don’t even realize when we are participating in a lottery of our own making. Health care, education, decent housing, and a fair wage for everyone have not happened because we still live in a scapegoat society. It is my opinion that because we have clinged to the idea of substitutional atonement, of one man who pays for everyone’s sins, we have become less likely to shoulder our own cross for the sake of others.

It has been said that the new codependency is one of incessant taking and a sense of entitlement. Where previous generations have hurt themselves and others by making themselves into martyrs and endless victims in giving too much of themselves, the present generations control reality by looking out for themselves, believing that those that suffer must have done something to earn it. In essence, scapegoating.  

But Jesus didn’t die because he was a scapegoat. He died for love and for friends. If he had hid himself from the authorities, allowed those whom he loved to shelter him, his friends would have been next in line for the cross. In John 15 Jesus tells his disciples, after repeating his commandment to love one another, that no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. In John’s gospel Jesus washes the feet of the disciples to illustrate that they are to emulate him and his Way, not the ways of the world. To love one another is to treat others not only as equals but even as superior to oneself. Jesus takes on the form of a slave or servant, kneels at their smelly, dirty feet and washes them clean, taking the human tendency toward self-absorption and transforming it into grace.

Such love is an anathema to a system built on domination. Perhaps there were those who believed that quashing Jesus would end his Way of things, that by using him as a scapegoat, others would fall in line. In the end, though, his disciples did learn what it meant to love and they did fall in line—right behind Jesus.

The suffering of Jesus is not meant to set him apart from us, but to invite us into his suffering with him. Jesus aligned himself with the poor, the outcast, with the scapegoats of his time and bids us to do the same. Jesus desires that we not shrink from fear but grow in love and compassion.

How do we participate in systems that scapegoat and blame? How often during the course of the day do we think of others, not how they relate to us, but of their own concerns and troubles and joys? For whom or for what would we be willing to lay down our lives? In what ways do we need to get clean with Jesus and his commandment to love? How might we go out of our way for the sake of another or for a whole group of people?

There things we need to die to, to confront within us and then release them that an empty space might be created—that empty space that signifies new life. But this is Friday night.

In the darkest night
it is not possible to believe
that light will come.

Because light has come before,
doesn’t mean it will again.

Hold faith tonight
for those who see the darkness
stretch before them —

who know no other truth than that —

whose barren-ness prevails,
who are buffeted by despair,
who cannot breathe for fear.

Join your prayer to God’s:
let there be light.

—written by Cheryl Lawrie, holdthisspace.org