Jesus the Scapegoat

The moment in which Jesus rides into Jerusalem strikes me as one of the most emotionally charged events in the gospels. Some scholars estimate around 2.5 million Jews from surrounding areas would have travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate passover. In the crowd, we can imagine the swirling hype and rumours surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, a man that has been heralded by John the Baptist as the one who has come to restore the kingdom of God which many understood as being synonymous with the kingdom of Israel. 

Into this charged atmosphere rides Jesus who has organised himself some transport so he can ‘fulfil the scriptures’ by arriving “humble and riding on a donkey”. The crowd cut down palm branches as they had done a hundred years or so earlier with the arrival of Judas Maccabaeus, an insurrectionist who had come to return Israel to the Jewish people by leading a revolt against their oppressors. Now, Jerusalem is occupied again. This time by Romans. And here is Jesus provocatively riding into town, fulfilling scriptures, playing up to the hype that greets him.

But, as we, and the gospel writers, realise he is not here to overthrow the political and religious leaders. Instead, in the crucifixion he is going to become the victim of the current power structures rather than overthrow them. The crowd, excited and ready to follow Jesus in ‘making things right again’ instead see their leader willingly arrested and presented to them weak, defeated and bleeding.

So, what is going on here?

Why is Jesus playing up to the hype of the crowd only to publicly and spectacularly let them down?

In the 1960s and 70s a French anthropologist developed something he called ‘mimetic theory’. The name comes from his explanation of human desire, which he sees as something that develops mimetically (from the same root as mimic, to imitate). In other words, desire is acquired and enflamed through observing others and desiring to be like them. The toddler sees the parent giving loving attention to a phone and then desires the phone, not so much because the phone is useful to them but because in order to be like the parent she must also desire the phone. The object (phone) becomes the way to be like (mimic) the parent. 

We see this playing out in the first story of the Bible where Adam and Eve eat the fruit not because it was particularly tasty fruit (there were plenty of other fruit trees in the garden) but because the serpent promised that by eating it they could become “like God”. 

If we take this account of desire seriously it follows that because we learn desire through imitating others we tend to share our desires with others for the same object. As any casual observer of children can attest to, this can often lead to conflict and violence. Girard suggests that the way our ancestors learned to deal with this conflict (which would often spiral out of control) was to project the violence onto a ‘scapegoat’. 

This can be somewhat complex to explain. However, we can imagine (and probably know countless examples of) the explosion of violence that takes place when these mimetic conflicts spread. In order for the early humans not to be lost in this violence Girard suggests that one of the earliest and most fundamental developments in society was the creation of a victimizing mechanism through which those warring parties found a common enemy on which to take out their own violence. The society, at risk of falling apart, can come back together through another form of mimesis; their mimetic hatred. They can become re-united again in their hate and rejection towards a group or individual. The Nazi party exploited this to an unprecedented degree in uniting a fractured Germany by finding a number of supposedly ‘defective scapegoats’. What the scapegoats ‘carry’ (or the reason for their societal ‘guilt’) can be seen as the outworking of violence originating from the desires of the community; it is necessary for them to die in order to preserve social order. The sins of the people are projected onto the scapegoat.

In the Old Testament we can see how this becomes highly ritualised in the the sacrificial system.  However, inherent in this system is the necessary lie that the scapegoat in some way deserves to die or ought to die. Because the scapegoat's death helps societal cohesion, the justification for their death attains the status of a religious ritual, as if ordained by God himself. What is interesting here is that the death of a scapegoat is the necessary means of social and individual salvation.

So, back to the moment of the Triumphal Entry: Jesus, at this stage, carries the weight of the crowd’s expectation; they want to be like him because he has come make things the way they always should have been, the way that God had promised they would be. He is here to fulfil their desires. For this they love him, want to be like him, want to follow him, want to cheer him on. He is the object which brings them together and causes them to feel important and justified in their desires. 

Then, he is beaten, tortured, stripped naked and publicly shamed. The crowd are in on it and only a few days after crying "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD" they are yelling “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Let’s understand that as Jesus rides into Jerusalem he carries all the crowd’s desires and his installation as the 'King of the Jews' is a fulfilment of their expectations and hopes. But as events proceed and he is exposed as vulnerable, suffering and apparently defeated so, too, are the crowd's desires and expectations exposed as false, wrong, unfulfilled. This excruciating disappointment and disillusion is too much for them and just as they were united in their praise for Jesus, now they unite around his death. Why? Because as a symbol of their own fragility, humanity and weakness his death is a way to put this reality as far from them as possible, to deny it, to crucify it. Jesus carries the burden of sin to the cross and crucifies it.

In the gospel accounts of the death of Jesus, he is persistently and repeatedly presented as innocent. The necessary lie of the guilt of the scapegoat is exposed as false. We see, instead, the crowd and religious leaders crying for his blood and the double-minded political leaders acceding to the crowd to save their own skin. In fact, in the gospels, the guilt seems to lie with those who execute and exploit the scapegoating mechanism (Judas as an insurrectionist, Caiaphas and the religious leaders, Pilate and the Romans).

Where society had developed the necessary lie of the scapegoat, Jesus in his death and resurrection exposes the sacrificial system as a lie, as oppressive and as inherently false.  Where is God in the crucifixion? One answer might be on the side of the victim, on the side of the persecuted. In Jesus death the sacrificial system is exposed for what it is: an unjust system brought about as a means of saving us from the violence inherent in our own unchecked desires. To paraphrase Girard, something Jesus accomplishes on the cross is the sacrifice of the sacrificial system, the end of justified victimisation.

I think the implications and questions raised by Girard's work are numerous and vast and definitely not absolute but my own personal reflection is that it offers a compelling anthropological lens through which to understand why Jesus had to die. I think it speaks powerfully to a theology that would have God demand the death of his own son in order to fulfil a cosmic equation of justice. Such a God, I believe, is problematic for a number of reasons for which there isn't time or space to expound upon here. Instead, God-in-Jesus is presented as unfathomably good, as 'carrying our sin' in order to expose the system of violence we created (and continue to perpetuate in ways in ways both minor and major) to expunge ourselves at the expense of others and to occupy the worst space so that we might know that even here, even in the crucifixion of God himself he would say "Forgive them; for they know not what they do."



Further Reading

Richard Beck has a great blog series called 'The Voice of the Scapegoat' where he explores these ideas in more detail. You can find that here.

For more details about a Girardean reading of the cross, see the girardianlectionary.