Scapegoating Jesus

Death or Peace – Standing at the Crossroads
June 28, 2024
Death or Peace – Standing at the Crossroads
June 28, 2024

I’ve been thinking about the way the world is presently behaving – like many of us.  We all have an increasing concern about the escalating tensions in the US and the changing rules of behaviour when under threat, the wars in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, and the threats of war by others. This recognition underpins our very personal grief at the suffering of individuals on all sides of the conflicts.  The horrific circumstances of the deaths and suffering, the trauma on children, the starvation, the war crimes, the brutality of violence and lack of compassion for the enemy, the ‘other’ who has now taken on an unhuman persona has given everyone permission to see lives as disposable, without humanity and for there to be no real accountability.  Old rules are being torn up.  

It has led me to think locally, here in this place, about the way we instinctively retaliate in response to opposition or unkindness which shows very clearly our resistance to God’s message of love and peace in our daily lives; and, our determination to respond in kind to what we perceive as threats, injustice or carelessness.

There is an ancient practice and ritual of scapegoating which was originally formalised in Leviticus 16:8-10, which identified the need for an animal, upon which a priest laid hands on an ‘escaping goat’, placing all the sins of the Jewish people from the previous year onto the animal, which was then driven out with reeds and thorns into the desert, and the people went home rejoicing: just as European Christians did after burning a supposed witch at the stake, or American whites did after lynching black men. 

Whenever the sinner is excluded, our ego is delighted and we are relieved and feel safe again.  It seems to work, for a time, but only briefly.  So we repetitively and habitually re-run the ritual because of course, such scapegoating doesn’t work in eliminating the evil ever, however the evil is defined, whether its about race, faith, gender or sexuality. 

Jesus came to undo this scapegoating ritual which is found in every culture in some form.  He became the scapegoat to reveal the truth to each of us, so we can see and understand that it is in such a way, we continue blindly to perpetrate cruel, vindictive, discriminatory and careless violence.    

Jesus shows us with love and sadness, this cycle is still present today in our own cultures, homes, communities and churches.  Jesus was the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).  The sin being ignorant killing, hatred and fear.  Blaise Pascal wrote with great insight, ‘People never do evil so completely and so cheerfully as when they do it with a religious conviction.’  Jesus became the scapegoat who broke the cycle for everyone, for all time, and in all places, including our churches today

So why have I started in this way, with these two stories told by Mark 6.1-13?  Because Jesus was once again being drawn into the cycle of repetitive, escalating contempt, discrimination and scapegoating.

The contempt with which Jesus was spoken about by his neighbours and the implied criticism of his mother and the family, with delicious scandalised whispers and open commentary highlight how hard it is to break down entrenched beliefs and behaviours.  Jesus who was judged openly, loudly and repeatedly by his neighbours, to have a questionable history, was not considered worthy of being seen with fresh eyes, in spite of the evidence before them.

Instead, they chose to ‘take offence at him.’ (Mark 6:3) This choice inevitably led down the path of scapegoating to Jesus’ death. We know the scapegoating mechanism largely operates unconsciously, people don’t know what they are doing, as Jesus said as he died on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34)

People think they are doing a ‘holy work for God’ (John 16:2). Indeed, the vast majority of violence in history has been sacralised violence across all faiths.  The Klu Klux Klan used the cross as their symbol demonstrating their belief that with God on their side, their violence becomes necessary and even redemptive.  But there is no such thing; violence does not ever save.  It only destroys, both in the long term and in the short. 

Jesus’ message of redemptive suffering rather than violence allows us to break the cycle of scapegoating violence; we learn how to hold onto the pain with Christ rather than passing it onto others destructively. 

Jesus sent the 12 disciples to pass on the message of repentance and forgiveness, of peace and love, of healing and restoration, (Mark 6:12). However, where violence continues, and the message of peace and repentance is rejected, Jesus told the disciples to move on.  Don’t waste the message on those who don’t want to listen, go to those who will.  There are limits. (Mark 6:11 and Matt.10:14). 

It is a frightening and awe-inspiring power which God is sharing with us and which we need to understand and it must be used as God intended.  Jesus’ instructions are clear on our behaviour as well: there is no intention of using violence ever, to impose repentance, forgiveness, peace or love – God’s Grace, upon those who don’t want it, it is not something that can be given or taken as a transaction, as a cheap bargain. There must be no cheap grace.    Instead, if the offer of repentance and forgiveness, of God’s love is rejected, our response is to leave in peace and go to places where the message is welcomed, accepted and lived. 

We learn to live with rejection, poor social media, scandal and threats.  We don’t share the violence imposed on us, we don’t find another scapegoat, instead it is absorbed by God’s love.  We live Christ’s life and use Christ’s gaze to see the world and love it and all God’s people.  It is not our role to escalate or desire violence to resolve problems.  We will not scapegoat and kill Jesus again, because we are resurrection people.

The Lord be with you in your sending out.


Alison, J. Jesus: The Forgiving Victim,

Giraud, R. 2001.  I see Satan Fall Like Lightening.  [Trans. James G. Williams] Maryknoll, New York, USA.  Orbis Books.

Metaxas, E.  2010.  Bonhoeffer.  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  Nashville, Tennesee, USA.  Nelson Books.

Pascal, B.  1910. Pensees, [trans. W.F. Trotter] New York: P.F. Collier, No. 895

Rohr, R. 2014.  Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer. Paulist Press: p.72-73.

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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