What Is Scapegoating?

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“The Scapegoat” William Holman Hunt

The scapegoat is an ancient religious ritual that has been brought forward into modern times by our media culture.

The scapegoat was a ritual animal that was either sacrificed, or driven from the community, bearing the sins of the entire community.

The following is taken from Myth Encyclopedia: Myths and Legends of the World

“The concept of a scapegoat, a person who is blamed for the sins of others, goes back to ancient times. The term comes from a Hebrew ritual that is described in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament of the Bible. Each year a priest symbolically transferred to a goat the sins of the people of Israel. The goat was thrown over a cliff outside the city of Jerusalem, and its sacrifice was believed to remove the nation’s sins. The ritual was originally performed to pacify Azazel, a fallen angel who became a demon of the wilderness.

The Hebrews were not the only group to practice scapegoat rituals. In ancient Athens, two ugly men were chosen as scapegoats during the festival of Thargelia. After dining at a feast, the pair were led through the streets and beaten with branches. Then they were escorted out of town or driven out with stones. The ritual was intended to protect Athens from harm.

The Maya of Central America also held an annual ceremony involving a scapegoat. At the end of each year, Mayan villagers made a clay model of the demon Uuayayah. They placed the model before an image of the deity responsible for governing the coming year. Then they carried the model of Uuayayah outside the village to ward off evil.”

In utilizing the scapegoat ritual, the community’s “sins” were said to have been forgiven. However, it also had the often unfortunate side effect of allowing people to ignore, or rationalize away, their own personal and communal culpability for those same sins. The scapegoat takes all sin away. So, we don’t need to worry about that.

Karen Armstrong begins and ends her new book “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence,” reminding us of the ancient religious practice of the “scapegoat.”
Armstrong suggests we have never lost our ability, and our desire, to scapegoat others. Or, as I liked to call it: To create The Other (with a capital letter…)

In some very popular Christian theologies, especially “Atonement Theology,” Jesus plays this same role. However, while atonement theology is supposed to permanently free us from the scapegoat ritual, far too many of its proponents continue to cast themselves as modern-day scapegoats…thus insulting Jesus, and negating the very sacrifice they claim Jesus made for them.

In modern secular culture, fear mongering and scapegoating have become closely associated with each other, and appear to exist without any associated religious ritual. We tend to pile our fears, anxieties, personal and collective failures…on top of public figures, celebrities, sports heroes, politicians. And then, we ritually drive them from the community.

The “downside” of the modern scapegoat ritual still remains. In scapegoating and driving out the “Other” the net effect is still often that society fails to truly confront its most serious problems. We banish Brian Williams and believe integrity has been restored to all media personalities. We banish the Confederate flag, and naively assume racism will cease. We raise money to rebuild poor nations after a disaster, never asking the deeper questions about why they are poor.

I am not suggesting that any of these things shouldn’t happen (flag banning, especially)…only that society appears to take too much comfort in the result, and believe too much “sin” has been permanently assuaged, and that the societal “ill” is healed.

Scapegoating is alive and well in our society. And it’s secular, pop-culture forms are, ironically, far more practiced than its religious forms.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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