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The Scapegoat


Maybe it is the Easter season that has me thinking. As a Christian, I celebrate both the Passover with the Jewish Community and the Crucifixion of Christ among Christians. Historically they both involve the need of a sacrifice to cover the sins of humanity.

Maybe it was the panel I attended last Thursday night. Six people from different ethnicities, generations and professions sat together while this shocking photo clip  was projected on a large screen above the panelist.

The clip affords a stark comparison between the scapegoat made of Christ and the horrible scapegoating of African Americans, often by professing Christians, during the days of Jim Crowe years after the Civil War. Some fear that the act of lynching may be resurfacing, at least in the demented hearts and minds of those still in need of a scapegoat for both their pride and their failures.

To paraphrase the more senior of the panel, a pastor and academic historian from Oakland, “if the cross was our index for Christ’s ‘inconvenient love,’ then the lynching tree becomes the index for our nation’s morality.” The photo has become a jarring reminder for me, of my need for a scapegoat, one I believe voluntarily provided by the Christ, though rejected by many of the religious. Could that pride filled rejection by humanity be the source of the many challenges that face our nation and globe today? Is racism, classism, even religious pluralism, simply another expression of our common need for a scapegoat to relieve our “burden of sin”?

Is this need present even among those who deny any religious affiliation; some of the “nones” giving themselves untiringly toward righting the wrongs of humanity, their own self-righteousness perhaps their substitute scapegoat?

My ponderings were affirmed by the post below, captured on Facebook by a trusted Christ follower, though authored originally by the famous theologian Charles Spurgeon:

“He had been all night in agony, He had spent the early morning at the hall of Caiaphas, He had been hurried from Caiaphas to Pilate, from Pilate to Herod, and from Herod back again to Pilate. He had, therefore—but little strength left, and yet neither refreshment nor rest were permitted Him. They were eager for His blood, and therefore led Him out to die, loaded with the cross. O dolorous procession! Well may Jerusalem’s daughters weep. My soul—you weep also.

What do we learn here, as we see our blessed Lord led forth? Do we not perceive that truth which was set forth in shadow by the scapegoat? Did not the high-priest bring the scapegoat, and put both his hands upon its head, confessing the sins of the people, that thus those sins might be laid upon the goat, and cease from the people? Then the goat was led away by a fit man into the wilderness, and it carried away the sins of the people—so that if they were sought for, they could not be found.

Now we see Jesus brought before the priests and rulers, who pronounce Him guilty; God Himself imputes our sins to Him, “the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all;” “He was made sin for us;” and, as the substitute for our guilt, bearing our sin upon His shoulders, represented by the cross; we see the great Scapegoat led away by the appointed officers of justice.

Beloved, can you feel assured that He carried your sin? As you look at the cross upon His shoulders, does it represent your sin? There is one way by which you can tell whether He carried your sin or not. Have you laid your hand upon His head, confessed your sin, and trusted in Him? Then your sin lies not on you; it has all been transferred by blessed imputation to Christ, and He bears it on His shoulder as a load heavier than the cross. Let not the picture vanish until you have rejoiced in your own deliverance, and adored the loving Redeemer upon whom your iniquities were laid.” -Spurgeon

The prophets and priests of Judaism obviously discerned the need for a scapegoat long ago, as reflected in their rituals. Yet, they failed to recognize the scapegoat provided in Christ, “typed” early on in their own scriptures by Abram’s ram in the bush. Both the Quran and the Bible mention Abraham’s conversation around the need for a sacrifice, the potential victim in the Bible was Isaac and in the Quran, the elder Ishmael. While neither accepts the full resolve of Christ, their need for a scapegoat seems to prevail.  Among radical Islam, the recent Kenyan massacre perhaps and among Orthodox Jews, the expectation that sacrifice will resume once their Temple is restored.  None seem without need!

For those unfamiliar with the term’s origin:

“The scapegoat was a goat that was designated (Hebrew לַעֲזָאזֵֽל ) la-aza’zeyl; either “for absolute removal” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon) or possibly “for Azazel” (some modern versions taking the term as a name) and outcast in the desert as part of the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement, that began during the Exodus with the original Tabernacle and continued through the times of the temples in Jerusalem.

Throughout the year, the sins of the ancient Israelites were daily transferred to the regular sin offerings as outlined in the Torah in Leviticus Ch 16. Once a year, on the tenth day of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement, the High Priest of Israel sacrificed a bull for a sin offering for his own sins. Subsequently he took two goats and presented them at the door of the tabernacle with a view to dealing with the corporate sins of God’s people — the nation of Israel. Two goats were chosen by lot: one to be “The Lord’s Goat”, which was offered as a blood sacrifice, and the other to be the “Azazel” scapegoat to be sent away into the wilderness. The blood of the slain goat was taken into the Holy of Holies behind the sacred veil and sprinkled on the mercy seat, the lid of the ark of the covenant. Later in the ceremonies of the day, the High Priest confessed the sins of the Israelites to Yahweh placing them figuratively on the head of the other goat, the Azazel scapegoat, who “took them away” never to be seen again. The sin of the nation was thus “atoned for” (paid for) by the “The Lord’s Goat” and “The Azazel Goat”. Since the second goat was sent away to perish, the word “scapegoat” has developed to indicate a person who is blamed and punished for the sins of others.”’1

“In Christianity, especially within Protestantism, this reality prefigures the sacrifice of Christ on the cross through which God has been propitiated and sins can be expiated. Jesus Christ is seen to have fulfilled all of the Biblical “types” – the High Priest who officiates at the ceremony, the Lord’s goat that deals with the pollution of sin and the scapegoat that removes the “burden of sin”. Christians believe that sinners who own their guilt and confess their sins, exercising faith and trust in the person and sacrifice of Jesus, are forgiven their sins.”2

Even before the time of Christ, pagan Syrians practiced a similar ritual. “A concept superficially similar to the biblical scapegoat is attested in two ritual texts in archives at Ebla of the 24th century BC. They were connected with ritual purification on the occasion of the king’s wedding. In them, a she-goat with a silver bracelet hung from her neck was driven forth into the wasteland of “Alini”; “we” in the report of the ritual involves the whole community. Such “elimination rites”, in which an animal, without confession of sins, is the vehicle of evils (not sins) that are chased from the community are widely attested in the Ancient Near East.”

“Later, the Ancient Greeks practiced a scapegoating rite in which a cripple or beggar or criminal (the pharmakos) was cast out of the community, either in response to a natural disaster (such as a plague, famine or an invasion) or in response to a calendrical crisis (such as the end of the year). The scholia refer to the pharmakos being killed, but many scholars reject this, and argue that the earliest evidence (the fragments of the iambic satirist Hipponax) only show the pharmakos being stoned, beaten and driven from the community.”3

Note the word, “pharmakos”, later used to describe a person often already condemned to death sacrificed in ancient Greece as a means of purification or atonement for a city or community. Of course the obvious is the root word for pharmacy, which carries my thoughts to the drug culture. For some I suppose, illicit substances could be their expression, a religion of chemical “scapegoats”; more acceptable, even more righteous in their blindness, than inflicting religious harm of others? Hardly do they know the full and universal damage of their addiction.

Christianity requires no further scapegoat, or does it? Has Christianity, as opposed to Christ-following,now in these post-modern times become victim to the same path as other religions? Was the Holocaust a necessary remedy for some underlying “burden of sin” by former Protestant Reformers who had failed in their pride to fully transfer that burden? Was slavery in Early America a response to a festering need for a savior, and thus unknowingly allowing professing Christian leaders justification for the trade of human flesh? Is today’s obvious classism and poverty unknowingly the result of those who benefit from the world’s greatest economy, yet still carry a burden of sin, allowing them comfort with charity instead of change?

Could the resurfacing of racism in America be symptomatic of a culture approaching that index of morality so starkly portrayed in the above photo? Perhaps even the pronounced acceleration of sex trade at national sporting events is the sick need of a scapegoat, allowing the wealthy to escape the bounds of civility, laying the sins of their perversion upon the flesh of another “less deserving” human?

Sin my friend is “falling short of the glory of God.” Religion in America may have become no more than a postmodern means of averting that awareness. Could the stirring of radical Islam, the resulting beheadings, the recent Kenyan murders be the result of another religion’s attempt to lay the sins of their humanity on the scapegoat of Christianity? Its enraged perpetrators seem always to shout, “God is Great!”

Is this in fact the common need among all humanity? Are all other conversations, and the more politically acceptable discussions, such as racism, poverty, sexuality, even religious plurality, mere distractions from our real need? Not to cast blame on any one religion, for all practitioners mean well in their own minds.  Yet, but when all mankind was provided with a visitation from the God of all people, one willing to become the sacrifice, He was ironically rejected.

Still yet in that irony, He so beautifully became the scapegoat mankind has been searching for even until this day. Who else has lived the life that so many during this “holiday season” desire to emulate, even if unspoken.

“Let not the picture vanish until you have rejoiced in your own deliverance, and adored the loving Redeemer upon whom your iniquities were laid.”- Spurgeon

And for those who find it difficult to believe, some of the last words of Jesus: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

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