“Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:21-22 NRS).
While the term itself, “scapegoat” is not in the Bible, the concept comes directly from Scripture. In the Book of Leviticus, the Law of the Lord, made provision for the collective sins of Israel to be expelled from their midst. The text outlines the High Priest laying his hands upon the head of the goat, transferring the sins of the people, and then sending it off into the wilderness. Thus the sins are sent out of the presence of people and the Lord who dwells in their midst. The notion of scapegoat is one humankind seem to have a natural affinity towards, probably because it takes the burdens of our guilt and bears them. We do not like to be wrong, guilty, or at fault. We appreciate the notion that someone else can be to blame. I have always suspected that this is why so many Christians cling so tightly to the concept of a devil who cajoles us into sinning against God. Jesus, while explaining what it truly is that defiles a person, tells the disciples: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile” (Matthew 15:18-20 NRS). Jesus blames our sin and the evil it creates in the world on our sinful inclinations, the evil intentions of our heart, not a devil, or Adam and Eve. If we are looking for a scapegoat for our sins, someone to hold responsible, we need to look no further than the closest mirror.
We are held responsible for our sins by God. We break the will of God when we sin, and we seek God’s forgiveness to be absolved of our guilt. When the High Priest transferred the sins of the people to the goat, it was with full acknowledgment of who had sinned, and what those sins were. It was a purposeful action. It was not a case of “we are not really at fault, so this is just a fail safe.” They had to repent, and that requires acknowledgement and ownership of the actions that caused evil to God and others. There is no forgiveness without repentance, no grace without the will to receive. We have to be honest about what we have done; honest with God and ourselves.
I believe that the lack of responsibility for our actions and words is part of the moral decay in the world today, especially in American culture. I have been the one who has hurt others, and I have been the one hurt by others. There are times when I might have been able to stave off pain and suffering I have endured, but maybe not. Sometimes nothing we can do could prevent our suffering when someone else was determined to cause it. The sin of causing suffering is only compounded when we try to blame someone else for inciting our sin. No one makes us sin. It is a choice to do what we know is wrong according to the Lord. It is to speak or act in such a way that we know will cause harm. Granting grace and forgiveness does not mean that we should ever blame the victim, the one who bore the evil sin brought. No one deserves the evil another’s sin visits upon them. That’s why I was taken aback by the words of Chrissie Hynde, the lead singer of the Pretenders, in this article published by The Washington Post: “Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde says women can be at fault if they are raped”
Sexual assault is one of the greatest perversions of sex. It is to take something meant to bless and turn it into the means of hurting another. Nearly one in every five women in the United States have been sexually assaulted, whether successful or not, even to attempt it is a violation, a sin against the intended victim. With so many of the female population being victimized, this is statement about the way women are understood, rather than the way women act, speak, or present themselves. As someone who was sexually assaulted in Middle School, I was shocked to read Ms. Hynde’s remarks. I was further stunned to discover that she was once raped. According to her own words, Ms. Hynde blames herself. It is a dangerous line of thinking. This is where legalism and God distinctly diverge. There are no sins of opportunity. We will ourselves to sin, and God makes no distinction between planned sin and improved sin. It is all equally sin. Perhaps like so many others Ms. Hynde makes a distinction. Maybe she thinks she could have prevented what happened to her. Maybe, maybe not. We can spend all our lives conjecturing, but that will never change was happened and what is: a sin was committed, someone was violated, and suffering entered into a life against the will of God. God never blames the victim in Scripture. Only the sinner is held responsible for their sin. Legalism can forget this, and strip the victim of their dignity by placing the blame sinfully back on the one who was hurt.
People make poor choices. This cannot be denied, but in the face of the truth that people who make good choices can still be made to suffer from the sins of others, our choices may have nothing to do with the sins others commit. I believe that connection can only be made and validated by God. If God wishes to make that known to a victim, then that is God’s business, not mine or anyone else’s. We do not have any right to lay the sin of one person on the head of another. God never told the High Priest to lay his hands on a human being, but an animal. When I was sexually assaulted, I was wearing a tunic length shirt, leggings, and sneakers. I was trying to get my books out of my locker before my next class. I cannot imagine how I incited the assault. The reality is that a male wanted to express his dominance and in a sexual manner. He did so, and that was his sin. He didn’t even know me. If I had been twenty-five, dressed to go out dancing at a club, and with someone I had once dated, it still would have been his choice to sin, his guilt, and not my fault. We are all inclined to sin, and God has given all of us the power to resist. The tragedy is that some will not. They will sin, and then add insult to injury by blaming the one they hurt. Follow that line of thinking and meet with disastrous, sinful consequences: “she wanted me to hit her,” “the child kept testing me as if he wanted to get beat,” “he disrespected me so I shot him.” The battered wife does not deserve her beatings. The abused child does not deserve their abuse. A false sense of respect does not justify violence and death. The victim of sexual assault is not at fault. Jesus did not deserve the abuse and death he suffered either.
We scapegoat because it makes us feel better, spreads the guilt around. By making someone else even partially responsible, we have lessened our burden, but God does not share that mindset. My sin is mine. Your sin is yours. Only I can take responsibility, and only I can repent of what is mine. The same goes for all people. While we spend so much time and energy trying to pass the blame, we could just be honest and seek forgiveness. God is ever ready and willing to forgive the one who repents. Even if other people are not willing to model this graciousness, God will exonerate the victims we have failed to shield from scapegoating. Then we will all have to account for the times we participated in scapegoating another person.
Have mercy, my God.
Forgive me for my sins, those I commit according to my will.
Help me rid myself of the will to blame others.
Help me take responsibility for my sin, so that I can repent.
Sin destroys the good you created, and the love you give.
It perverts the blessings you bestow, and makes evil a real presence.
For those I have wrongly blamed, I cry out my shame.
For those I have made suffer, I reject those ways.
I cling to you, and seek your grace.
Let me stand with others against the sin of scapegoating.
Let me speak up for those who have been silenced by unjust words of condemnation.
Allow me to be a vessel of your love.