And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.  (Romans 12:2)

The term “scapegoat” wasn’t officially coined until 1530 A.D., and then only as a mistranslation of a Hebrew word found in a biblical passage (1530 A.D. translation of the Bible by William Tyndale). The practice, however, is as old as humanity itself. From original sin in the Garden of Eden, to the corruption of our judicial and political systems today, the human race has always found a way to target virtually everything, except itself, for its own guilt and self-centeredness. 

What is a Scapegoat?

The concept of a scapegoat was first introduced in the Old Testament book of Leviticus (Chapter 16:1-34), as a means of atoning for the sins of the Israel. It was an annual rite that involved two goats. The High Priest would lay his hands on the head of each goat, while confessing over it all of the sins of the people, thus symbolically placing the sins upon the goats. One goat was sacrificed to the Lord and the other goat was then led into a desolate place, where it would carry all of their transgressions away from them. This goat was the so-called scapegoat. This rite is the origin of the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur.

Over time, the original design and purpose of this practice became distorted and abused; especially within society at large. Rene Girard, a Christian anthropologist, has had much to say about this. His theory is that humankind is essentially preoccupied with coveting what another has or seeks to have. This fixation ultimately creates tremendous conflict among those involved, and begins to threaten the balance of society. At some point, one person is usually singled out and called to blame for the resulting turmoil; that person is then dealt with and driven out from society. As a result, social order is restored.  

This tactic is not only widely used today, it works

I have seen this used first hand. Some time ago, I went to work for a company who had an employee with a long history of conflict with her co-workers. As a result, there was a great deal of tension in the office. Eventually a situation arose that would make possible the termination of this long-standing associate, who somehow had managed to evade her destiny all these years. The only catch was that it required the use of another associate who became, in essence, a scapegoat that could be blamed for the outcome.  

In the end, the troublesome associate was let go. And, though it took some time to heal the residual damage, the scapegoat was able to remain an accepted part of the group. Within a year the atmosphere of the office vastly improved, and the associates began to build relationships with one another that brought cohesiveness to the group. 

We can clearly see that this tactic actually works. But is it beneficial in the long run? One needs only to look at the in-fighting and polarization taking place across the globe to discover the answer to this question. Today’s rendition of a scapegoat is a perversion of the original intent and ultimately tears at the fabric of society. Formerly, when the high priest conducted his ritual of placing the sins of Israel on the head of the goat, he did so while confessing those sins aloud. There was never any accusation made against the goat; and there were no illusions of innocence on behalf of the Israelites. The goat was only to take the confessed sins and carry them away from the presence of the congregation—not bear the blame. 

Why are we talking about scapegoats?

Our society today has become very adept at diversion when it comes to personal failure. We see it all around us, and most of us do it ourselves in greater or lesser degrees. But there is a certain freedom in confessing and admitting our failures. It’s not been often that we’ve seen someone in the public eye humble themselves and admit when they’ve been wrong. But when we do, it usually results in the respect of the people; even of those who may have initially been critical of them. This is because most people still believe that honesty truly is the best policy; especially when it pertains to others!

Let’s not follow suit with the world

Let us not allow the world to conform us to its image. When we sin and fall short, let’s be honest and humble enough to admit it and not pass the blame. And whatever consequence we might face, let’s honor God and each other by accepting it with integrity.

Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.  (Proverbs 28:13)

“But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.”  (Luke 12:2-3)

1. Rene Girard, The Scapegoat Mechanism, Violence and the Sacred, 1972