The scapegoat ritual practiced by ancient Israel functioned, I suppose, as a symbolical representation of the collective cleansing and forgiveness of the covenant people by God. Whether it was a healthy ritual or a toxic ritual for ancient Israel I cannot say. If it served as an expression of genuine confession and repentance it may indeed have been redemptive. If, however, it was carried out as an act of projection and refusal to own one’s own culpability as so often happens today, then it was a toxic ritual that did far more harm than good.
While each passion story in the Gospels is different in many details, they all depict Jesus as a scapegoat. The soldiers humiliate him and press a crown of thorns on his head. The soldiers and the crowd ridicule and deride him crying, “Hail, King of the Jews.” He is scorned and mocked. But Jesus is not God’s scapegoat; he is our scapegoat. I say “our” because symbolically the powers that be represent all of us. The religious and political powers that colluded to execute Jesus represent all of humanity and all the ways we have poured out our fears, angst and wrath on scapegoats of our own making throughout history.
The late Clarence Jordan was an American Baptist who founded Koinonia Farm in Americus, Ga., an interracial community where white and black members lived as a community of equals. This was even before the era of civil rights activism. Quickly, Jordan and his community were made into a scapegoat by the surrounding communities.
In a sermon Jordan tells about getting a phone call at 1:30 in the morning. The guy on the other end said, “Mr. Jordan, I just wanted to let you know that within seventeen minutes there’s going to be a green pickup truck pull out of that dirt road there just below the bridge and it’s going to be loaded with dynamite. We’re going to blow your place off the face of the map. I just wanted to let you know so you would have time to get the people out of the buildings.”
When Jordan told his wife and son about the phone call they simply brushed it off and went back to bed. Jordan, too, went back to bed, but he admits having trouble going back to sleep. He says, “I must confess the thoughts in my head were not conducive to sound slumber. I watched the clock tick off those minutes … and when it did headlights came up the road near that bridge and I thought, ‘Well, this is it.’ But we weren’t going to be out there under that light, running around in our pajamas like a bunch of scared nitwits. We were going to be in our beds. And if the world wanted to have a little blowing-up party, they could have a little blowing-up party. … The pickup came and slowed down, and I thought he was coming in. But he didn’t. We felt this taunt that they threw at Jesus’ face — ‘Let him save himself.’ He couldn’t. He was the one that he couldn’t save. He hadn’t come in the first place to save himself. He’d come to save mankind. He was the only one who couldn’t save himself. … The taunt was true. For the world had to have a lightning rod to discharge its static, spiritual energy. And God made himself available in his son. And I think God needs in this world, available people who will bear the sins of the world.”
In Matthew’s text of the last supper (26:20-30) the bread and the cup represent the body and blood of Jesus which Jesus says is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. What the text doesn’t say is how this works. The text doesn’t tell us how this pouring out unto death somehow makes forgiveness possible, thus inviting theories of atonement.
Jesus did not die because God required it. Jesus did not die because something in God needed or required a violent sacrifice. It was something in us that needed a violent sacrifice. And that something is our sin, our fears and insecurities and prejudices that would make a person or a group or a race or a whole community a scapegoat or a lightning rod. Jesus didn’t die to pay off God because God needed his pound of flesh. Oh, no. We humans are the ones who demand our pound of flesh. Jesus didn’t need to die for God to forgive our sins. God forgives because God is a forgiving God — period. God did not make Jesus a scapegoat. The political, social and religious powers came together to make Jesus a scapegoat. We made Jesus a scapegoat.
So how in the world can the early followers of Jesus look upon this horrific act of violence and see in it God’s redemption? How is it that the cross of Jesus becomes a saving and reconciling event? Surely it is because of the way Jesus bore our sins upon himself. He refused to retaliate, to repay evil with evil. He refused to return the hate and injustice heaped upon him. And he bids us take up our cross and follow.
The scornful taunt is true: Jesus could not save himself if he wanted to save others from the evils of scapegoating and the life-diminishing and death-dealing consequences that come when we deny our sin and project our fears, insecurities, prejudices and anxieties onto others.
Let me offer one caveat and this is important. This bearing and absorbing of sin must never be used as a tool of oppression to keep victims from protesting their victimization. It must never be used, for example, to keep a woman in an abusive marriage or an employee from confronting a demeaning situation in the workplace. This is no excuse for not confronting injustice or not speaking truth. Nor does forgiveness mean there are no consequences. In many cases there can be no reconciliation and redemption without restitution and repentance and genuine change of heart. But for peace to prevail someone or some community has to say, “I will not, we will not, repay evil for evil. We will forgive. We will let it go.”
There will always be a price in pursuing the way of the cross. It takes costly, sacrificial acts of forgiveness to break cycles of hate and violence. It takes someone with the courage and love and moral strength to say enough is enough. The injustice stops here. The violence stops here. I will not return your evil or your hate. I will not let your hate and injustice rule me or control me. I will not replay all these painful grievance stories. I forgive.
Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians that the world calls this both “foolish” and “weak.” To bear the sins of others without demanding pay back, without retaliation, is from the world’s viewpoint considered “weakness.” Look at how our own political system functions. One party always trying to get the best of the other party, always looking for a payback, to do to them what they did to us. Isn’t that how the world works? That’s why the world, says Paul, calls the cross foolishness (see 1 Cor. 1:18-25). But, says Paul to the Corinthians, what is to the world weakness and foolishness is in reality the wisdom and power of God that saves.
I so hope some of you will grasp this. God didn’t need Jesus to die to forgive our sins. But Jesus’ death has become for us a great redemptive event because the way of God and love of God was made clear at the cross. Jesus has revealed to us in the way he lived and in the way he died the heart of God. Jesus shows us that God is a nonviolent God and God’s way of forgiveness is our means and hope for peace and reconciliation. If our world is ever saved this is what will save it, namely: The way of love and forgiveness revealed at the cross. May God give us eyes to see.