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.


Whose Land is It?

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this passage from my daily reading:     “From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates,all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory.   No one will be able...

Ep 12 – “The Church Cracked Open” with The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers

Amy shares about her journey of faith, path to ordination as an Episcopal priest, passion for and vocation of studying scripture, and the blessings and challenges she has experienced along the way.

Dealing With Fear

Tornados of fear are swirling around the world, many of them invading our psyches.  Wars in Ukraine and Gaza, not to mention Sudan and Myanmar; escalating climate change; unrelenting gun violence; immigration crises.  To my mind, the storms of fear are particularly...

The Different Layers of Campus Anger

I lived a block away from a campus protest that erupted in November, 1974.  I was a teaching fellow at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, and the campus was about to be shut down in opposition to Gerald Ford’s visit to the city, the first time an American President...

Campus Protests: What We Bring to What We See

In the past week I have had several conversations with friends about our respective opinions on what is happening on college campuses across the country, as students have set up encampments to protest the war in Gaza and insist that their university divest any...

Passover and the Importance of Remembering and Honoring Pain

I write this post on the first day of Passover, an annual commemoration of the Exodus story, when the Israelites escaped their slavery in Egypt, traveled through the parted waters of the Red Sea, spent forty years in the Sinai wilderness, and crossed the Jordan River...

Cherry Blossoms and the Denial of Death

While Spring is officially on the calendar, it is still inching into southern New Hampshire, where I live.  Some daffodils are emerging, taking their time after a surprise snowstorm earlier this month.  This long wait for spring calls to mind my two-year sojourn in...

Scams: Preying on Vulnerability and Violating Trust

I fell for a scam last week.  My computer froze, a pop up alarm appeared and said needed to call Microsoft immediately to protect all that was stored on my desktop, lest foreign hackers steal my data, documents and identity.  The Microsoft number was prominently...

Easter: Breaking Through a Contraining System

He broke out.  He got up.  In faith Christians proclaim that Jesus rose from the grave:  Alleluia!  Christ is Risen.  What follows are hymns of praise, expressions of joy, a profusion of flowers – all offered to gatherings that are double the size of a normal Sunday...

Ep 11 – “Passion and Patience” with The Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler

Amy shares about her journey of faith, path to ordination as an Episcopal priest, passion for and vocation of studying scripture, and the blessings and challenges she has experienced along the way.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join my mailing list to receive the latest blog updates.

You have Successfully Subscribed!