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The Scapegoat

Some Conservative MPs want to assassinate the Prime Minister. Not literally of course, they don’t wish her dead. But they do wish her gone. ‘If only we can get rid of her, then our problems will be resolved. It is all her fault.’ That is their view. No matter that most people point out that removing the Prime Minister will do nothing to solve the issue we’re facing, indeed, will probably make it harder to manage. Its not actually the Prime Minister who is the prime problem here

It’s a painfully familiar cry. Every time I hear it I know that something nasty, maybe even ‘evil’, is being proposed: placing all the blame for something, on one person, or group of people, for if we can only get rid of ‘them’ then the problem will go away. Hitler did it to the Jews. Many today, like Mr Trump, are doing it to immigrants, as nationalists everywhere, are prone to do. Its never true of course, but its a simple way of placing responsibility for an uncomfortable issue, on someone else, so that we can avoid our own responsibility for dealing with it. Its called ‘Scapegoating’ and the individual or group scapegoated are Scapegoats. There’s always a nasty smell in the air: massive injustice lurks and is about to be perpetrated on somebody, somebodies, who are deemed to be vulnerable and disposable.

It’s a process that has a long history. It began in the Old Testament, where the Jews were worried that their sins might provoke God’s wrath upon them. They had a list of likely sins with sacrifices that should be offered to God in penitence. But there was concern that some sins might not have been recognised or adequately atoned for, so, once a year an innocent goat was sent off into the desert, symbolically bearing those un-atoned sins of the people, to wander and die, as a sacrifice. It was known as the scapegoat and was seen, centuries later, by some early Christians as being a good image for Jesus and for explaining what they knew from experience had occurred as a result of His innocent death. Its an image that doesn’t make much sense to me with respect to Jesus, but there’s no doubt as to its continuing power, and of the willingness of people feeling themselves to be guilty and under threat, to use it to divert attention and responsibility somewhere else. ‘We’re not to blame, its not our fault, its nothing we’ve done, its all down to him/her or them, over there. Its all their fault, they’re responsible. Anybody but us. Just get rid of him/her/them, and everything will be alright.’

As I said, its not an image that I find at all helpful for Jesus. Its an image for an action which most of us can see with hindsight to have been abhorrent. Yet it continues to be recognisable in all walks of life, from the personal to the public.
Even the church has a line on it: the Roman Catholic Church is currently coming under fire, and rightly so, for the abusive behaviour of some of its priests, and the church is punishing the guilty ones. But the real responsibility, it seems to me, lies with the institution itself, which demands that all priests be celibate. A demand that makes the abusive behaviour all but inevitable. Rather than acknowledge that and reform itself the church scapegoats the expendable individuals. Society at large is little better, many of those languishing in prisons, in poverty, or in deprivation are being punished by society for it’s failure to care and provide adequately for all of its members.

Sadly, we seem to be less skilled at recognising it in the present, especially when we ourselves are doing the scapegoating: whether its individuals, groups, nations, religions or races who are involved. And of course, its always those judged to be weak and vulnerable who are picked on, rarely the powerful.

1 Comment

  1. I found this article on scapegoating so interesting Henry. It resonates with my own observations of human nature and our default position, often, to load blame and responsibility onto anyone but ourselves. In fact, for a number of years I’ve had a postcard of William Holman Hunt’s “The Scapegoat” pinned on my kitchen cupboard to remind me (lest I might forget!) to scrutinise my own soul and to reflect upon what exactly I’m trying to offload onto the “other” and why. This can be a sobering , but necessary exercise!

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