Not Guilty

The Final Scapegoat and the Easter Verdict

The Morning Judgment, by James Tissot (1886-94).

Sacrifice has been bound up with biblical religion since the earliest, “pre-historical” chapters of Genesis. Genesis chapters 2 and 3 can be read as one continuous Sabbath day following the Seventh day of rest from Genesis 1, on which Adam and Eve are intended to observe their covenant with God by returning the gifts he has bestowed upon them. Although not explicitly mentioned, the implication is that the life of Adam and Eve is to be based on a rhythm of sacrifice, for example, setting aside the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Sacrifice takes on a social significance, which can be seen in the changed relationship between our first parents after their refusal of sacrifice—grasping at control, rather than offering obedience. Found out of order in their relationship with their creator, Adam and Eve try, once again, to hide their shame (after their first attempt of masking their identity proved unsatisfactory) by placing the blame for original sin on one another. Adam even seems to try to make God accept his guilt, placing the blame specifically on “the woman whom you put here with me” (Gn 3:12). Eve is no longer seen as a connatural partner, but, instead, as the cause of Adam’s disordered relationship with God.

The tradition of sacrifice becomes more explicit in Genesis 4: “Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil, while Abel, for his part, brought one of the best firstlings of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering, he did not” (Gn 4:3-4). Human failure in sacrifice again plays out in a social consequence, this one manifesting itself in even more intense separation and rivalry. Cain slays Abel in an attempt to mask his own failed sacrifice, making his brother another proto scapegoat in the tradition of his parents. Sinful humanity is falling into the violent cycle of covering insufficient personal sacrifice by lashing out against others who are perceived as rivals and threats to happiness.  Cain’s answer to the Lord’s question regarding Abel’s whereabouts betrays the workings of the scapegoating mechanism in his heart. His reply of “I do not know” is not just a fanciful lie, it represents that by eliminating his brother, Cain has truly sought to remove any memory of him, and, more importantly, his own unrighteousness forever.

We are given an added dimension to sacrifice by the Levitical instruction for the Day of Atonement. “Laying both hands on its head, he shall confess over it all the sinful faults and transgressions of the Israelites, and so put them on the goat’s head. He shall then have it led into the desert by an attendant. Since the goat is to carry off their iniquities to an isolated region, it must be sent away into the desert” (Lv 16:21-22). In this custom, the sacrifice has the capability to symbolically remove the sins of the community by bearing them away itself. The scapegoat vicariously bears the guilt of the people, a guilt which they are ritually freed from, due to the goat’s expulsion from the community. With the scapegoat gone, never to return, the people can now forget about their past transgressions.

Throughout the Old Testament, we receive hints at the insufficiency of sacrifice, either in its own natural power or in the way it is carried out by the Jews themselves. The prophet speaks of the necessary movement away from external sacrifice towards total personal commitment in the Isaiah, chapter 1: 11-17. This pericope gives testimony that God, who is perfect and sufficient in himself, has no need of external gifts from mankind. In fact, Isaiah tells us, these sacrifices do not delight him (v 11), are not required of him (v 12), are an abomination to him (v 13), and are a wearisome burden to him (v 14). Both the Prophetic books and Wisdom literature of the Old Testament provide an array of references which suggest that, contrary to the prior emphasis placed upon them in the Old Testament, God is not truly pleased by sacrificial offerings; particularly when they are made hypocritically by those who fail to carry out the will of God in their actions towards one another. This theme is fulfilled in the New Testament, specifically as evidenced by the Gospels in the ministry of Jesus. As Jesus proclaims to the Jewish authorities, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith” (Mt 23: 23), urging them to “first cleanse the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside may also be clean” (Mt 23: 26). Clearly, external sacrifices, independent of interior disposition are not pleasing to Jesus.  Christ unmasked the tendency of the Jews to make external sacrifices, instead of, rather than as indications of, internal conversion, authentic justice, and true righteousness.

The French literary critic and theologian Rene Girard presents a novel interpretation of the entire Gospel, revolving around the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross was less of a sacrifice, at least in the traditional sense, and more of a rejection of sacrifices. To Girard, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was a divine proclamation that our deceptive attempts at reconciliation have always been, and will always be, ineffective, and that the only way towards true reconciliation is love and communion. Girard concludes that in order to avoid accepting blame ourselves, humans seek to resolve conflict and eliminate rivalries through the method of scapegoating. Girard recognizes, that the antagonism created by rivalries becomes unifying when conflicted parties find a shared victim to remove or destroy.1 In this way, the very thing which had been a prior source of division, becomes a source of unity, at least temporarily. Scapegoating allows us to sweep our problems under the rug: setting them aside in order to create a social climate in which we are more comfortable.

The high priest Caiaphas speaks of this possibility during the aftermath of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus. The Sanhedrin was concerned that quickly popularizing belief in Jesus, due to his miracles, would most likely cause Roman military intervention in Jewish party politics.  Caiaphas, however, suggested that Jesus did not have to be a figure of division: if used correctly he may be manipulated into a figure of reconciliation between the Jews and Romans, and among the rival Jewish groups themselves. “It is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish” (Jn 11:50). John tells us that Caiaphas “prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (Jn 11:51-52). While we might have the tendency to spiritualize this text and see only a foreshadowing of Jew and Gentile communion in the New Covenant, it doesn’t seem that this is on the mind of Caiphas at all. His hope does not seem to be in the context of conversion—it seems to be hope in an essentially non-religious political landscape; an ancient Palestinian version of the proclaimed mandate of the modern West to simply set aside all core beliefs in favor of a flimsy and watered-down spirit of acceptance.

This prophecy of Caiphas is realized in Luke 23. After Jesus was accused by the chief priests before Pilate, then sent to Herod to be accused and mocked, he was finally handed back to Pilate, now with his identification as scapegoat complete. Luke succinctly explains the workings of the scapegoating mechanism in verse 12, telling us, “And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this, they had been at enmity with each other.” By focusing on this newly invented enemy, the rival parties can look past their own conflict, come together under the façade of agreement, and focus on placing blame and enacting punishment on the scapegoat.

Viewed according to this nonviolent perspective, the resurrection of Jesus is a divine proclamation that violent sacrifice is not the answer to division, either among ourselves or between us and God. Jesus’ blood is truly that which cries out to God from the soil (Gn 4:10).  William T. Cavanaugh takes up this theme in his book, Torture and Eucharist. The Eucharist, to Cavanaugh, conforms the Church into a “counter-discipline” to violence.2 Cavanaugh explains that:

Eucharistic sacrifice is the end of the violent sacrifice on which the religions of the world are based, for its aim is, not to create new victims, but, rather, martyrs, witnesses to the end of victimization. Assimilation to Christ’s sacrifice is, not the continuation of the violence and rivalry needed to sustain a certain conception of society, but the gathering of a new social body in which the only sacrifice is the mutual self-offering of Christian charity. Martyrs offer their lives in the knowledge that their refusal to return violence for violence is an identification with Christ’s risen body and an anticipation of the heavenly banquet.3

To Girard, the resurrection brings the lie of the scapegoating system to light; exposing it, destroying it, and ushering in a new framework for dealing with conflict. Girard recognizes this theme in the description of Jesus as the stone which the builders rejected (Ps 118; Lk 20:17).  According to Girard:

Christ ironically calls, knowing very well that he alone is capable of giving it in the process of being rejected, of himself becoming the rejected stone, with the aim of showing that this stone has always formed a concealed foundation.  And now the stone is revealed and can no longer form a foundation, or, rather, it will found something that is radically different.4

Girard’s perspective in no way underestimates the necessity of the crucifixion for our salvation.  It does, however, force us to reconsider what we truly believe about its historical causes, and strive to learn from it everything that God desires to teach us.

  1. Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) 13.
  2. William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1998) 229.
  3. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 232.
  4. Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (Stanford University Press, 1977) 178.
Dusty Gates About Dusty Gates

Dusty currently serves as the director of adult education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, and as an adjunct professor of theology at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, where he resides with his wife and two children.


  1. A new perspective to look at . Very interesting too