Missing the Point on Scapegoats

Missing the Point on Scapegoats May 15, 2016

06 190 EdinburghOne of the first things I learned from blogging is that I can control what I write, but I can’t control how other people read it. With every post, there’s always someone who doesn’t read what I actually wrote, or who has foundational assumptions so different from mine they just can’t see the point I’m trying to make. And then there are those readers who, if I say the sky is blue, will scream that the sky is gray where they are and how dare I presume to speak for all sky gazers. Thankfully, they’re a tiny percentage of the readers of Under the Ancient Oaks.

But when it seems like two thirds of the commenters are missing the point, I have to accept that this time the problem isn’t the readers, it’s the writer. Sometimes the readers miss the point because I didn’t do a good job of making the point. That’s what happened with last week’s post There Are No Scapegoats in Modern Paganism.

So in the interest of making things clear, here’s what I was (and wasn’t) trying to say.

This isn’t about the origins of scapegoating. Several commenters were quick to point out that the ancient Greeks had a similar practice, only using people instead of goats. If I ever knew that I forgot it long ago, and I thank the commenters for correcting the historical error. There was a lot of cultural and religious cross-pollination in the ancient Mediterranean world – it’s possible both practices have common roots. It’s also possible they developed separately. But how and where scapegoating began is not important.

As Northern_Light_27 said in the comments “blame-games over provenance ultimately don’t matter very much.” Whether a practice is good or bad, helpful or harmful, depends on the practice itself, not who started it. Scapegoating is an unhelpful process not because it started with Leviticus but because it’s an unethical and ineffective way to deal with wrongdoing. That the pagan Greeks did something similar doesn’t make it any better – or any worse.

This isn’t about blaming other people for our problems. The fact that “scapegoat” is often used as a verb illustrates how the meaning has shifted. Donald Trump blames Muslims and immigrants for all our problems and we say he’s scapegoating them. But that’s not what a scapegoat is. Here’s the original description of a scapegoat:

When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

Leviticus 16:20-22, NIV

Here’s the key point: the Israelites knew the goat was innocent, but they projected their sins onto it anyway. When we make someone a “scapegoat” we may, at some level, know they’re innocent, but we act like it’s all their fault. As some have pointed out, Pagans do that as much as anyone else.

I do not wish to get into yet another argument over word definitions. But when I said “there are no scapegoats in Paganism” I was referring to the original meaning: punishing the innocent to cleanse the guilty, not to blaming someone we don’t like and pretending we’re really innocent.

This isn’t about blaming Christianity for our problems. Within a few hours of my post, John Halstead had this piece titled Christianity as the Modern Pagan Scapegoat. With the exception of the definitional issue outlined above, it’s a very good post. Too many Pagans spend too much time attacking Christianity when they’d be better off putting that energy into becoming good Pagans.

While I lament the loss of many ancestral religions at the hands of Christianity, the only people I can blame are the kings and churchmen who forced conversion on whole populations. In other places, conversion was voluntary – Christianity simply won. In any case, that was a very long time ago. Religion is not fixed – if it hadn’t been Christianity replacing ancestral religions, it might have been Islam or Buddhism. And now the tables are turned and many former Christians are becoming Pagans.

I have many good friends and family members who are Christians, including my wife. Christianity is as good – and as bad – as the people who practice it. Pagans would do well to think and speak of themselves as Pagans and not as not-Christians.

This is about one specific Christian doctrine. While I have no desire to attack Christianity, the fact remains that Paganism is competing with Christianity in the marketplace of religions. Further, because Christianity has dominated the West for over a thousand years, its assumptions and propositions are often accepted as right and normal without question, even by those who don’t consider themselves Christians. It falls to Pagans to level the playing field by calling out these assumptions and propositions, and by pointing out than in many cases we don’t just have different answers, we have entirely different questions.

Traditional Christianity claims that their God requires perfection. But since humans can never be perfect, a perfect vicarious sacrifice will suffice – a divine scapegoat. And unless they accept that divine scapegoat (i.e. – they affirm the Christian doctrine around the death and resurrection of Jesus) they will be condemned to eternal torment.

Why? Because we behave in exactly the way their God supposedly created us? As I said in the original post, punishment does not “pay a debt” or “settle a score.” All it does is satisfy our base desire for revenge against those who hurt us. A God who demands such punishment, much less who demands a “perfect” sacrifice, isn’t much of a God – something many Christians recognize.

The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is logically flawed and ethically corrupt. Pagans, atheists, and liberal Christians are right to call that out.

This is about a better way. It’s not enough to tear down the unstated assumptions of the mainstream religion – we also need to offer a better alternative.

While banishing a scapegoat can make us feel like we’re good and clean, it doesn’t accomplish much. And deep down we know it. Making us feel good and clean comes through focusing more on the person we harmed and less on ourselves. It comes from accepting that we did something harmful and then working to make it right: you break it, you fix it. If we do things that can’t be undone, we can apologize and strive to never do it again. If you benefit from unjust systems, work to reform or replace them.

We can’t offer absolution, but absolution isn’t necessary. Repairs, restitution, and restoration are.

I didn’t do a very good job with last week’s post on scapegoating. But instead of laying my poor writing on the head of a goat and then driving that goat out into the wilderness to slowly starve to death, I’m acknowledging what I did, I’m trying to make it right, and I’m striving to do better.

Because there are still no scapegoats in modern Paganism.

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