Often, the notion of Jesus’ being a victim is confused with that of his being a scapegoat, though the two are close. This period of the year, when Christians are turning their minds towards Good Friday and Easter, is an appropriate time to consider this issue.
The book of Leviticus gives an account of the Day of Atonement when the people of Israel reconciled themselves to God by cleansing the sanctuary of impurities and themselves of sins. For the people of Israel, ritual and personal purity before God was – and continues to be – a key part of their religion. Part of the ceremony involved taking two goats, sacrificing one as a sin-offering and sending out the other into the wilderness carrying upon its back the sins of the community (Leviticus 16.6-10).
However, before the animal (the scapegoat) is sent into the wilderness, the high priest places both his hands on the head of the goat and confesses over it the transgressions of the people of Israel which the animal carries away from the people to a remote land:
When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins putting them on the head of the goat and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16.20-22)
The purpose of the ritual was to re-establish equilibrium within the community and with God. Indeed, the role of ritual was the reconciliation and re-ordering of both individuals and community, through sacrifice. After this ceremony, the people could be at one with themselves and God. Modern commentators argue that this particular ceremony had another important function. It was a mechanism for handling and dissipating violence and conflict brewing beneath the surface in the community (which every community has) and if it was not channelled ritually, it would break out in far more destructive and non-rational ways. René Girard is the most famous proponent of this school of thought. Some would be critical of the high profile he gives to violence and conflict in the dynamics of a healthy society and he does not take sufficient account of the victory won on the cross by Jesus Christ, but he provides significant insights into the way religion and culture function. Girard claims that every community has deep within it a rivalry which can break out into a violent form of scapegoating. Identifying and disposing of the scapegoat is a means of directing and controlling the rivalry and violence and restoring equilibrium and reconciliation within a community. Often, the scapegoat is seen as subversive of the communal order and a threat to the equilibrium of the society.
The story of Joseph is a classic example of scapegoating (Genesis 37). He was a threat to his elder brothers because he was a favourite of his father, Jacob, and he enraged them with his dreams predicting that, contrary to what they perceived should be the case, the older brothers would be bowing down to the youngest, Joseph. They therefore cast him out of their community.
Contemporary examples of scapegoating include anti-semitism, racism and other forms of ethnic cleansing. Scapegoating is a non-rational activity which is liable to happen in every community, even (perhaps especially) those which regard themselves as rational and reasonable. The person or group being scapegoated is usually regarded as responsible for ills and disorders within the community. For example, immigrants would be seen as responsible for overloading the national health service or taking the houses which should be given to long-term residents of the country; people of other faiths would be targeted for being potential terrorists. The person who does not fit in to the community because he or she cannot or does not want to integrate with others may become the focus of suspicion if something goes wrong in the area. In such instances, the vigilante group, or the lynch mob, may not be far away.
In the light of this understanding of the scapegoat, it is possible to see Jesus Christ as a scapegoat. Although he is never identified as such in the New Testament, he is treated as a scapegoat. He certainly was regarded as subversive of communal order in first century Palestine and a threat to the well-being of society. It was Caiaphas who came closest to identifying Jesus as a scapegoat when he said:
‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death. (John 11.49-53)
The importance of viewing Jesus Christ as a scapegoat is that it balances viewing him as a victim. It cannot be over-stated that Jesus was victimized but not a victim. Yet for centuries the victimhood of Jesus has been emphasized. Seventeenth century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran represented the way in which Jesus was frequently understood in his painting ‘Agnus Dei – Lamb of God’ which shows a bound lamb prepared for sacrifice.
Jesus’ victim status is referred to in hymns such as, ‘Alleluia, sing to Jesus’ which concludes with the phrase ‘thou on earth both Priest and Victim in the Eucharistic feast.’ In ‘Christ triumphant, ever reigning’ are the words, ‘Suffering servant, scorned, ill-treated, victim crucified’ and in the hymn ‘Sing my tongue the glorious battle’ comes ‘Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer, as a victim won the day.’ Many stained glass windows equate Jesus being a victim with a passive obedience to what has befallen him. Nothing can be further from the truth. Victimhood understood as being completely in the thrall of one’s victimizer was not Jesus’ experience, is not a Christian virtue and will not enable reconciliation to take place.
Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.