Good Friday Sermon:
by Rev. Rebecca
The Ultimate Scapegoat
Why did Jesus die? What is the point of the cross?
It’s not unusual to hear these questions, and I am often challenged to
answer such questions by Christians and non-Christians alike. For a lot of
people, the crucifixion just doesn’t “make sense.” How does Jesus’ death
accomplish anything? How does it “save us from our sins?”
One of the responses the Church has offered is the concept of
“substitutionary atonement.” That is, people are sinful, God is angry, and
sin can only be “atoned for,” that is, made right, by the shedding of
innocent blood. Somehow, this is what God requires. So God, in God’s wrath
and anger toward us, sent Jesus down to take on the sin and punishment
that we deserved, punishment reserved for humanity, and dies as our
substitute to take away our sin.
I don’t think I’m the only one who has ever felt less than ecstatic,
when not downright ambivalent by such theology. It hardly makes one feel
loved by God to think that God was so unremittingly angry with everyone
that all that anger and wrath had to be put on to Jesus in our place.
Yet…the cross is the center of the Christian faith! If the cross is
without meaning and great significance, then Christians are a very sorry
group of people.
I believe substitutionary atonement theology is a misunderstanding of
the cross. So what is the point of the crucifixion then? Was Jesus’ death
special or unique, does it have the power to “save”?
Let’s look at where this whole idea of atonement comes from.
It has been observed by cultural anthropologists around the world that
sacrifice is a universal practice. Every culture, including all of our
ancestors, sacrificed animals, and sometimes even humans, to “appease the
I can attest to this practice because it still occurs in many Third
World countries today. In Thailand, the animists kill an animal in order
to appease the local spirits and to make up for the “sins” they commit.
When I was in Thailand and wanted to move into a house to rent, there was
an altar set up in the yard to a local ruling spirit-god. I asked the
landlord to please remove it. He said he would not be able to move it,
lest he offend the spirit, unless he could kill a chicken as a sacrifice.
So…a few days later there were dead chicken parts all around the altar and
later the altar was gone. I was relieved, but felt sorry for the chicken.
As the anthropologist & theologian Rene Girard points out, what
happens culturally in a sacrificial system is that the community finds a
“scapegoat.” That is, someone to pin their evil, fear, and sin on to. They
then either abuse, expel, or kill the scapegoat to get rid of their own
fear and sin. In ancient traditions, goats were taken and killed with the
people’s sins placed upon their backs. And that is where our term
“scapegoat” actually comes from.
Scapegoats are chosen usually because they are younger, smaller,
weaker, or different from the majority. Animals are a logical choice
because of their relative helplessness next to humanity’s skill and
However, there is one major problem with this sacrificial system of
scapegoating. God is very clear in Scripture that God is not happy with
this system. "I desire mercy not sacrifice!" says God in Hosea 6:6. Psalm
51:16-17 says, "For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken
spirit, a broken and a contrite heart; These, O God, You will not
despise." God is NOT bloodthirsty. God says,“Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and
make thanksgiving your sacrifice to the Most High” (Psalm 50:13-14).
So, many of us today think, “Well, that system of scapegoating was
primitive, violent, and vulgar, we no longer indulge in it! Or do we?
Perhaps it has only taken a different form. For example:
-Shunning and abusing the poor is a form of scapegoating. Businesses
urge cities to make it illegal to “loiter” near business and shopping
areas because middle & upper class folks do not want to see homeless
youth in that area and such people will supposedly drive shoppers away. If
you are a group of youth dressed in clothes from the Gap, the police won’t
arrest you for loitering. But if you are a group of homeless youth, I’ve
seen the police kick and arrest such youths for “loitering.” The poor are
somehow “at fault” for the lack of prosperity among these commercial
businesses and are driven out for it.
-Racism is a form of scapegoating and it occurs against all different
races. Minority races are often scapegoats in our culture. In the US our
history of slavery and of lynching blacks are prime examples of this. Yet
racism has been aimed at everyone in this country from the Irish to the
-Sexism is also rooted in scapegoating. Whether it is men in the Church
hierarchy saying that women are the root of evil and are unable to reflect
Christ as clergy members or women who blame males for all evil…it is all
-Leaders are often easy scapegoats when things go wrong. We see this
happen all the time when leaders in the government, corporations, or even
churches are driven out and ‘sacrificed’ on behalf of the institution.
-Child abuse occurs in many homes in America and throughout the world.
In such cases the children become the scapegoats of their parents or adult
-We often demonize and scapegoat those of other religious groups.
Whether it is the medieval crusades, or southern Baptists against
Episcopalians or Episcopalians against Southern Baptists or Aphgani
terrorists scapegoating all Americans or Americans scapegoating Aphgani
-In the USA we managed to scapegoat all those who were mentally or
physically disabled by sterilizing 15,000 people in 1933. We believed that
if we could just get rid of such persons, our society would be free of
problems and we would become a “superior” nation.
-Around that time Nazi Germany took it a step farther and killed
somewhere between 140,000 to 200,000 mentally disabled persons during
-But the Nazis killed 6 million Jews. It is still incomprehensible. The
Jewish people have been scapegoats for centuries for the world’s ills.
They have even been blamed for Jesus’ death. It is no wonder they protest
so loudly when there is any hint of anti-Semitism in films, books, or
-In California and elsewhere it is continually said that all the
problems with the economy, welfare, and health care system are due to the
“illegal aliens” who sneak across the border from Latin America and have
-Youth culture and music is often identified by those in power as the
source of evil: from Jazz to Rock n Roll to Hip Hop to Rap to Heavy Metal
to gangs to punks to hippies to goths to ravers.
-Animals today suffer torture and cruelty in our factory farms
supported by our government, the commercial meat industry, and fast food
chains. They are exploited for money and ‘bear our sin” of gluttony and
greed. The thousands of sacrifices in the Temple in Jesus’ time is no
match for our system of animal sacrifice which kills at the rate of 300
animals per second every day in the USA alone.
-Homosexuals are also scapegoats in our society as homophobia rages on
in our nation and homosexuals are blamed for everything from the breakdown
of the family to 9/11.
In fact, just about every evil and atrocity in our world can be traced
back to this system of scapegoating. And these all stem from the same
basic, sinful attitude.
But then Jesus enters into our world and preaches something radically
different. In Jesus, God takes on this system of scapegoating most
directly. Jesus preaches non-violence, turning the other cheek, and mercy.
He says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will see God!” The Scriptures
never report Jesus participating in animal sacrifice in the Temple, and,
in fact, just days before he is killed he goes into the temple and drives
out all those who were selling animals to be sacrificed! Jesus goes and
embraces those who have been rejected and scapegoated in his society: the
tax collectors, the prostitutes, the women, the lepers, the fishermen, and
even the Gentiles.
Jesus also goes around forgiving people’s sins…not because they have
sacrificed an animal to a bloodthirsty deity, but because God is able to
forgive because God is merciful and accepts the sacrifice of a contrite
As Hebrews 10:4-6 says:
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away
sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices
and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Jesus shows us once and for all what God is really like. Jesus, as the
God-man, becomes the victim: not a victim to God’s wrath, but to
humanity’s wrath. Jesus is the victim of our scapegoating mechanisms and
structures. The inevitable end to Jesus’ life was death…and he knew it.
Jesus shows us that, rather than condemning and victimizing others, God
willingly becomes the victim to take the place of all our scapegoats.
It is no coincidence that Jesus died on the day of Passover, the day
when the lambs were killed, the scapegoats of the day. Jesus takes the
place of every scapegoat, and becomes instead, the Lamb of God who takes
away the sins of the world!
Why does Jesus become the victim? Is it to encourage victimization and
call us to be victims? No! It is to put an end to all scapegoating and
victimization! Jesus’ death took the place of the paschal lamb and of
every scapegoat. We no longer need to abuse, kill, or sacrifice victims or
scapegoats because God has already taken on that role in its fullest form.
The cross exposes and reveals OUR sin of scapegoating and then,
immediately forgives it! Jesus is the Lamb of God, he died on a cross to
take the place of all scapegoats, animals and humans alike. Jesus’ death
is substitionary only in that sense.
As S. Mark Heim, a Girardian theologian wrote in The Christian Century:
“God is willing to die for us, to bear our sin in this particular way,
because we desperately need deliverance from the sin of scapegoating. God
breaks the grip of scapegoating by stepping into the place of a victim,
and by being a victim who cannot be hidden or mythologized. God acts not
to affirm the suffering of the innocent victim as the price of peace, but
to reverse it."
Heim asks, "IS CHRIST'S DEATH UNIQUE? It is not, since it is crucial to
the saving "work" of the cross to recognize that Jesus' death is precisely
the same as that of so many other victims. And yet by virtue of this
identification it is unique because it is the one of all these deaths that
have been happening from the foundation of the world that irreversibly
shows us the sin in which we are everywhere enmeshed and in which God has
acted on the side of the victims" (“Visible victim,” The Christian
Century, March 14, 2001, by S. Mark Heim).
We, as a people, are all guilty of the sin of scapegoating in one form
or another. Some of us have also been victims of it. The Cross exposes all
of us. We must exercise the sacrifice of mercy, not of violence. That is
the call of the cross. Jesus, the Lamb of God, has been slain for this