I'm sure all my readers will at least think they are familiar with the art of scapegoating.
It happens in companies. When something goes wrong, and the company accidentally kills someone or loses lots of money, there are usually multiple system failures that lead up to the problem. However, as often as not someone will get the blame, and the sack. This will usually not be the CEO or the Board of Directors, even if it was actually their fault. It will usually be someone more junior - a person with enough authority to be plausibly blamed for the problem, but not enough power within the company to protect themselves. They take the blame for everyone else and are ceremoniously banished as a way of removing the stain from the company as a whole.
Countries and the regimes that govern them tend to do the same. Regimes that are corrupt, or oppressive, or govern in the interests of a small minority, find themselves the target of their people's anger. They work hard to deflect this anger onto someone else - most often an unpopular minority. The more corrupt or dictatorial the regime, the harder it will work to whip up anger against its chosen scapegoat. Nero used the Christians to deflect anger over the fire that destroyed large parts of Rome. The Nazis used the Jews to unite the rest of the nation behind their corrupt and violent regime. The military dictators of Myanmar stir up hatred against the Rohingya, then use the resulting unrest as an excuse to delay further democratization.
Asylum seekers are talked up as a threat and used to divert attention from a range of unpopular domestic decisions. Here in Queensland the previous government used outlaw motorcycle gangs as their scapegoat, whipping up a law and order campaign to turn attention away from a serious of unpopular and possibly corrupt pieces of legislation. The tactic is so widespread, so entrenched in human government, that we often fail to notice it.
The trouble is, we keep doing it wrong.
The original idea of the scapegoat comes from the Hebrew scriptures, in Leviticus 16. There we read that once a year, on the tenth day of the seventh month, the Israelites were to celebrate the Feast of Atonement. This ritual included the sacrifice of a number of animals.
Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats – one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.
The bull and the goat chosen "for the Lord" were to be sacrificed at the altar - the bull to atone for the High Priest's own sins, the goat for the sins of the people, using a detailed ritual designed to protect the High Priest in the most holy part of the sanctuary which he would only visit on this day. After this he would deal with the 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.
Now I know that my readers are at all points along the spectrum from devout believers to militant atheists. Still I think we can all agree that the Levitical process is a definite improvement on the Nazi/Myanmar/Abbot approach to scapegoating.
First of all, their scapegoat is a goat. No people are harmed in this process. Instead, the mistakes and failings of the Israelites are symbolically taken out on a small number on animals. Many of us will feel a certain amount of sympathy for the animals involved. After all, what have they done wrong? However, you should bear in mind that if these animals were not sacrificed at the altar they would simply be butchered elsewhere. In fact while the bull and the Lord's goat suffer a messy death, the scapegoat gets a surprising reprieve. It is turned loose in the wilderness. Anyone who has traveled in outback Australia will know that goats can survive pretty much anywhere. As soon as the goat was out of sight it would turn to foraging for whatever scrubby plants it could find and be happily feral for the term of its natural life.
Secondly, neither the sins of the leaders, nor those of the people, are swept under the carpet. Before he does anything else the High Priest has to sacrifice a bull to atone for his own sins. The whole nation is watching as he publicly admits to his own failings and does something about them. He is forbidden from attempting to keep up the illusion that he is without fault.
But so is everyone else. A goat is killed for the sins of the whole nation. Then the other goat is symbolically asked to take on board, and to carry away, these sins. They are publicly confessed. Was this a "general confession" like churches do now, or did they get down to specifics? We are not told, but nonetheless the nation's failings are admitted and symbolically transferred onto the goat. They are then sent out with it into the desert.
They don't disappear altogether. The goat lives on, presumably carrying its heavy burden of sin as it goes. I doubt that it cares. But the sins are removed from sight. The Israelites are given a chance to make a new beginning, to confess and repent of what has gone before and to start over again, trying to do better in the coming year. They won't get it right, the ritual will need to be repeated next year. But it is out in the open, the need to do better is acknowledged by everyone from the High Priest to the lowest farmhand.
It is so simple and transparent, and yet we continue to get it wrong. We and our leaders refuse to own up to our own failings and instead seek someone else to blame for them. We try to create the illusion that we are perfect, that we have nothing to be ashamed of.
Not only that, but we persistently refuse to take the route God offers us and substitute something less than human for the human victims of our rage and hubris. Abraham was commanded, at the last moment, to swap his son for a ram, but we refuse. We keep the ram - because it is profitable and will breed us many more sheep - and sacrifice our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters instead.
So next time you hear complaints about scapegoating, remember that the problem is not that we are scapegoating but that we are failing to scapegoat. We have lost the skill of scapegoating. The result of our loss is a world filled with pain.