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.


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