This month’s Patheos Public Square topic is “The Sacrifice: Religions and the Role of the Scapegoat.” As best I can tell, all the entries are from Christians, Muslims, or Jews. I see nothing from the atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, or Pagans. I know Jason asked two Pagan channel bloggers to write on this – I don’t know if they declined or if their entries weren’t included.
It really doesn’t matter – this post isn’t to complain about a lack of inclusiveness. While sacrifice in one form or another is close to a universal religious practice, scapegoating (and its Christian derivative, substitutionary atonement) is unique to the Abrahamics – it’s really their concept to debate.
Sacrifice can mean “to give up” and it can also mean “to make sacred.” There is room for both in modern Paganism. Animal sacrifice is a contentious topic, but it was an important part of our ancestors’ religious practices and it can be for us as well, if it’s done properly (few Pagans know how to do it properly, and doing it badly is far worse than not doing it at all – if you aren’t properly trained, don’t even think about trying). Some time ago I wrote about a very special sacrifice I was asked to make – I’m glad I said yes.
Sacrifice reminds us that there are things that are more important than our personal comfort. It reminds us that life often includes difficult, unpleasant, and even painful things that must be done anyway. It reminds us of the importance of reciprocity – the Gods give to us, so we give to Them in return. If you aren’t already doing it, I encourage you to make sacrifice at least an occasional part of your spiritual practice.
But there are no scapegoats in Paganism.
You break it, you fix it. While the idea of “sin” is often used in manipulative ways, the fact remains that all of us at least occasionally behave in ways that are harmful to others and to ourselves. We do things that are not in alignment with our values. Then because we are creatures of empathy and compassion (most of us, anyway) we feel bad about what we did. We want to stop feeling bad. This is understandable, but it’s also a misplaced priority.
If you harm someone, the first priority is to repair the harm. Care for the injured. Fix what’s broken or make reparations. Apologies can be helpful (especially in the case of unkind words which cannot be unsaid), but only if they express regret for the action, not simply for the result. And apologies are no substitute for tangible action to make things right. You break it, you fix it.
Your benefit, your responsibility. Many of us participate in and perpetuate systems that do far more harm than any individual could ever do on their own. Many of these benefit us at the expense of other people, other communities, and other species. Feeling guilty about it doesn’t accomplish anything. Neither does saying “it’s always been this way” or “it’s not my fault.”
We can debate which systems are helpful, which are harmful, and which are neutral. Though regular readers of this blog will know where I stand on most issues, this post is not intended to advocate for a particular social or political agenda. This post is intended to remind you that if you benefit from a system that harms others, you have a responsibility to repair the damage and reform or replace the system, even if you didn’t create the system in the first place.
Punishment is meaningless. One of the most harmful concepts the Abrahamic religions have contributed to our common society is the idea that punishment somehow “pays a debt” or “settles a score.” This idea merely canonizes our base desire for revenge against those who hurt us.
The only valid uses of punishment are to teach those who can or will learn no other way that some actions are unacceptable and to protect society from those who can’t even learn that way. Not only does scapegoating attempt to shift responsibility from the guilty to the innocent, it does so in ways that are entirely ineffective.
Now, if you break an oath or otherwise violate a sacred obligation, you may have to go to great lengths to make amends and to convince your Gods and your community that you can be trusted. But never confuse making things right and rebuilding trust with inflicting or accepting unnecessary pain and suffering.
The slate can never be wiped clean. A broken dish can be glued back together and made serviceable. If done well, it can be made beautiful. But it can never be made perfect. Cruel words can never be unsaid. Those who are killed by negligence or murder can never be restored to life.
Absolution is one of the greatest selling points of Christianity. While being told “you’re forgiven” can be helpful in making a fresh start and trying to live a better life, it does not change the reality of what was done.
There are things I’ve done that I’m not very proud of. I can’t make them go away. All I can do is remember that I did them and do my best to never do them again. Most of the time I don’t, and I can feel good about that. Occasionally, though, I do something I swore I’d never do again. Then it’s time to make things right, and to remember that living a virtuous life requires constant mindfulness.
Perfection is not required. Christian mythology says the world was created in perfection, but human sin caused it to “fall.” There is no truth in this story. The Universe is full of mystery and power. It’s full of majesty and beauty. It’s full of miracles and magic. But nowhere will you find perfection – not even in our Gods. Perhaps They can be said to perfectly embody Their virtues, but that’s not the same thing as saying They’re completely and entirely perfect.
Perfection is a worthy target that inspires us to constantly try to improve ourselves. But it’s a helpful target only when we accept that no matter how much we strive for perfection, we can never attain it.
We can’t reach perfection with the help of a scapegoat either, even if that scapegoat is a divine sacrifice.
The good news is that perfection is not required. What is required is to live virtuously and heroically, to the best of our imperfect abilities. Where we fall short, we make reparations and amends, even as we understand those too are imperfect.
This is the reality of life – no scapegoats required.
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I’ve added “Modern” to the title of the post. As several commenters have pointed out, there was at times a form of scapegoating in ancient Greece. That’s the danger with saying “there is no X in Paganism” – there’s always a chance that someone somewhere has done it and you’re just not aware of it.
That said, the main points of the post remain valid: you fix it, you break it. And perfection isn’t possible, but it’s not required.