Scapegoating: Its Legacy and Current Use

Questions, if not accusations, abound about the mental status of Vladimir Putin as he continues to wage war against Ukraine. Is he unhinged? Is he psychotic? Is he evil? Is he the willing stooge of a villainous Russian cabal which seeks to reap economic benefit from the destruction of a neighboring country, regardless of the human cost?

All of these, and other similar questions, are pure speculation, and need to be sorted out. But what is clear is that he is employing an ancient strategy that over the centuries has been diabolically effective. It is the identification of a scapegoat.

The roots of the term — and its practice, goes back to early Judaism. On Yom Kippur, which is the day of Atonement, the high priest would receive a goat which had all sorts of cultural slurs and hostile messages written on its sides. The priest would then take the abused goat and throw it out into the wilderness, where the goat would quickly be attacked and devoured by wild beasts.

It was a symbolic ritual, designed to demonstrate to the faithful that sins could be expiated.

But almost immediately other cultures picked up the practice of scapegoating, not as a symbolic ritual, but as a vengeful activity. An individual or a group was identified as a threat to the dominant community — and energy and commitment grew around the need for the offending party to be marginalized, vilified or destroyed. The practice became normalized, because the victimization of a scapegoat reduced the anxiety and tension for the rest of the community. Someone else was suffering, which meant the rest of the community would be spared. And was thus relieved.  For awhile.

Scapegoating became a kind of cultural pressure valve. Beat some people down, or throw some people out — and some sort of balance in the overall community could be restored. But inevitably, the tension and anxiety in the community would begin to rise again, which meant that new scapegoats needed to be found, or longstanding ones needed to be treated with greater malevolence.  Most, no, all of us have at one time or another made a scapegoat of someone – be it a family member, a class or race of people – or, most likely, a kid or a group in high school that everyone seemed to relentlessly pick on.  One’s social standing required active participation in joining in – one way or another.

Vladimir Putin has gone to great lengths to identify Ukraine as a scapegoat, because — as he has erroneously, wildly and serially stated, the country of Ukraine is filled with Nazis, and is trafficking Soviet citizens, and is manufacturing deadly chemical weapons. His scandalous and venal accusations are working in some quarters of his country, because people are desperate for anxiety and tension to be reduced.

But outside of an diminishing cohort of people who subscribe to Russian propaganda, Putin’s attempts to scapegoat Ukraine exposes a vile and inhumane campaign. It is not working. The people of Ukraine are refusing to be scapegoated — at an incredible cost. Their resolve and courage has sent a message to Putin — and to the whole world, that scapegoating creates an endless spiral of perfidy.  And needs to stop.

It is often claimed that Jesus of Nazareth died for the world’s sins. I have long struggled with that interpretation, because his death on the cross then reduced him to be a human scapegoat. I will admit that Jesus died willingly, but he did so to end the practice of scapegoating. He didn’t see his death as a means to reduce people’s anxiety, but to set people free.

Like many, I am inspired by Ukraine’s courage and steadfastness. They are saying no to the human tendency to scapegoat. We should do the same.

 

What Do The Risks of Aleksei Navalny and Jesus Say to Us?

When Aleksei Navalny returned to Russia from Germany in January 2021 after recovering from being poisoned, prison was certain and death was likely.   Navalny died on Friday, February 16 at the IK-3 Penal Colony, located 1200 miles northeast of Moscow in the arctic...

Aging, the Election and a Pathway Through the Chaos

Are Joe Biden and Donald Trump too old to be President?  This question is getting a lot of attention, with no end of commentary.  Assessments are being made as to each candidate’s physical stamina, mental acuity, and psychological health.  Recommendations have been...

Immigration: Moving Beyond Technical Fix to Adaptive Challenge

In 2013 I spent a couple of days at the southern border with a group of fellow bishops.  We stayed in Douglas Arizona, but several times made our way through the checkpoint into Agua Prieta, Mexico.  A small group of us helped deliver water to the several water tanks...

From a Dentist’s Chair: Musings on Vulnerability

Last week I sat for two hours in a periodontist’s office while receiving a dental implant.  My mouth was adequately and expertly numbed, and the only discomfort I felt was the anxiety I experienced when the periodontist began to drill into my jawbone.  There was not...

I Versus We

Some fifty years ago, The Episcopal Church, along with many other Christian denominations, went through a liturgical upgrade.  The Nicene Creed, which was first written in 325 during the Council of Nicea (and from which its name is derived), and which is said at most...

Ep 10 – “How We Learn to Be Brave” with Bishop Mariann Budde

We discuss the process of discernment in decisive moments in life and faith, and how God calls us to be brave in such moments.

Ep 9 – “Following the Way of Jesus” with Pastor Raymond Chang

We discuss the roots of Ray’s faith commitment, the origins and nature of his work to prevent gun violence and racialized violence, current events in Israel and Palestine, and the role of reconciliation in all of this.

Stepping Out of Fear and Into Light and Hope

It was someone else’s story, but over the years I have retold it as if it has become my own.  It was Gardner Taylor’s story, which he told at the end of a sermon during my first year of divinity school, nearly fifty years ago.  Dr. Taylor was then the pastor of...

Ep 8 – “Finding Solutions Together” with Angela Ferrell-Zabala

Our discussion touches on faith and love for our neighbors and Angela shares the powerful example and influence of her mother on her life.

Where Does Evil Come From? How Best to Deal with It?

Several years ago, while still an active bishop, I facilitated a meeting that I suspected would not go well.  It didn’t.  People, including me, came in angry or scared – or both.  Half the group resisted the agenda, and the other half resented the resisters.   Nearly...
Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join my mailing list to receive the latest blog updates.

You have Successfully Subscribed!