Why can't we shake this practice?
Before we begin, two important notes!
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Last August, I was on vacation with some friends, and by the end of the week we all christened each other with nicknames. Some are too naughty to divulge here, but one friend became “Tailgate,” always the party bringing up the rear, and I became “Scapegoat.” Maybe it’s my goody-two-shoes-ness, or maybe it’s because I’m always (over-)involved in the details of other peoples’ lives, but the joke became to blame me for everything. Someone late for dinner? Elise’s fault. Can’t find a wallet? Blame Elise! And honestly, it was hilarious! We’re making t-shirts for our reunion tour next year.
When I got home though, I thought about the word scapegoat. Obviously, we all know its general definition, but what’s its source?
It’s from Leviticus, in the third book of the Torah:
8 Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. 9 And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. 10 But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness. The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Le 16:8–10.
Scapegoat is translated from the Hebrew word ăzāzêl—apparently the only place this word appears in the Bible. Its meaning is debated (does it mean escape, cliff, is it a demon or spirit, etc.), though the implications of this Yom Kippur atonement ritual are not: The goat carried the sins of the people, and so it was driven into the wilderness. Or sacrificed.
Here is Father Richard Rohr from The Universal Christ:
“For me, the Hebrew Scripture that most lays the foundation for understanding the death of Jesus is found in Leviticus 16, which French philosopher and historian René Girard calls the most effective religious ritual ever created. On the ‘Day of Atonement’ the high priest Aaron was instructed to symbolically lay all the sins of the people on one unfortunate goat, and the people would then beat the animal until it fled into the desert. (The word ‘scapegoat’ came from the phrase ‘escaping goat,’ used in early English translations of the Bible.) It was a vividly symbolic act that helped to unite and free the people in the short term. It foreshadowed what we Catholics would later call ‘general absolution’ or ‘public confession.’ Instead of owning our sins, this ritual allowed us to export them elsewhere—in this case onto an innocent animal.”
As Rohr explains, this ritual eventually allowed us to export our sins onto the body of Christ, although Jesus never said that he died for our sins. (Paul did.) Point being, we have a long, human history of looking for people or animals to blame, on whom we might be able to place all of our bad feelings. Quite simply, we love a scapegoat. It’s convenient.
Forgive me for the extra lengthy passage, but I need to give you some Carl Jung, from The Undiscovered Self, where he writes:
“He does not deny that terrible things have happened and still go on happening, but it is always ‘the others’ who do them. And when such deeds belong to the recent or remote past, they quickly and conveniently sink into the sea of forgetfulness, and that state of chronic woolly-mindedness returns which we describe as ‘normality.’ In shocking contrast to this is the fact that nothing has finally disappeared and nothing has been made good. The evil, the guilt, the profound unease of conscience, the dark foreboding, are there before our eyes, if only we would see. Man has done these things; I am a man, who has his share of human nature; therefore I am guilty with the rest and bear unaltered and indelibly within me that capacity and the inclination to do them again at any time. Even if, juristically speaking, we were both accessories to the crime, we are always, thanks to our human nature, potential criminals. In reality we merely lacked a suitable opportunity to be drawn into the infernal melee. None of us stands outside humanity’s black collective shadow. Whether the crime occurred many generations back or happens today, it remains the symptom of a disposition, that is always and everywhere present—an one would therefore do well to possess some ‘imagination for evil,’ for only the fool can permanently disregard the conditions of his own nature. In fact, this negligence is the best means of making him an instrument of evil. Harmlessness and naivete are as little helpful as it would be for a cholera patient and those in his vicinity to remain unconscious of the contagiousness of the disease. On the contrary, they lead to projection of the unrecognized evil into the ‘other.’ This strengthens the opponent’s position in the most effective way, because the projection carries the fear which we involuntarily and secretly feel for our own evil over to the other side and considerably increases the formidableness of his threat. What is even worse, our lack of insight deprives us of the capacity to deal with evil. Here, of course, we come up against one of the main prejudices of the Christian tradition, and one that is a great stumbling block to our policies. We should, so we are told, eschew evil and, if possible, neither touch nor mention it. For evil is also the thing of ill omen, that which is tabooed and feared. This apotropaic attitude towards evil, and the apparent circumventing of it, flatter the primitive tendency in us to shut our eyes to evil and drive it over some frontier or other, like the Old Testament scapegoat, which was supposed to carry the evil into the wilderness.
“But if one can no longer avoid the realization that evil, without man’s ever having chosen it, is lodged in human nature itself, then it bestrides the psychological stage as the equal and opposite partner of good. This realization leads straight to a psychological dualism, already unconsciously prefigured in the political world schism and in the even more unconscious dissociation in modern man himself. The dualism does not come from this realization; rather, we are in a split condition to begin with. It would be an insufferable thought that we had to take personal responsibility for so much guiltiness. We therefore prefer to localize the evil in individual criminals or groups of criminals, while washing our hands in innocence and ignoring the general proclivity to evil.”
We are desperate to wash our hands in innocence. I understand the instinct. I share it and watch myself carefully to see what I am refusing to own. This is what On Our Best Behavior is largely about: What are we denying, repressing, suppressing, and ultimately projecting because we’re so understandably afraid of what’s been labeled “bad”?
Part of what’s gone wrong is that the idea of atonement—atoning for sins—has come to be synonymized with accepting punishment and making reparations. You make the bad thing go away, you negate the act, you wipe it from the board. But the root of atone comes from “at one”—to be united or reconciled. At-one-ment requires integrating our “sins” or whatever we’re conditioned to label as bad—not expiating them and casting them out. And certainly not projecting our bad feelings or actions onto another being and making them carry the burden. What’s required is overcoming the psychological duality that Jung describes above, a duality that insists to us that we can cling to the “good” side of the spectrum while disowning the “bad.” Practically, we can send the scapegoat into the wilderness, sure, but in Jung’s world, we’re really just driving it deeper into our subconscious. It’s still there, waiting to be reconciled, to be integrated, made whole, brought back into the fold. Doing this work—integrating, metabolizing, staying conscious to the whole affair—is what is required to be fully human.