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Monday, July 30, 2007

Scapegoat II

A scapegoat, according to Leviticus 16, carries the sins and transgressions of the people, and is let go in the wilderness. A second goat is slaughtered as a sin offering. The scapegoat is a domestic animal, incapable of sin, incapable of breaking laws. The high priest transfers the guilt of that year's confessed transgressions onto the goat. A person is appointed to lead the goat to the desert or lonely mountains, the wilderness, and release it. Presumably the goat will be eaten by a predator. Thus the sins of the people are consumed, destroyed.

How long this custom was followed, and where, and with what result, I do not know.

Yearly, symbolic eradication of sin has been practiced by many cultures. Some indigenous Mexican and Andean groups gather around a fire to speak their responsibility for harm to others. Apology, restitution and forgiveness allow the group to stay together for the benefit of all. Sometimes, just before Lent, my congregations would write on slips of paper their regrets, resentments, failings. We put them, folded and unread, into a hibachi, burned them, and used the ashes on Ash Wednesday. New Year's celebrations carry a theme of death and rebirth, of starting afresh, leaving last year's negative baggage behind. This can support the courage to tackle life's problems and injustices again, and to change our behavior for the better.

Today, a scapegoat is a person or group who bears the blame for others. Often this means blaming the victim; for instance, a person who feels guilty for inappropriate sexual feelings or behavior, even sexual assault, may blame the person desired. The psychic mechanism of projection is involved. People project their own guilty desires onto an ethnic or racial group, and mistreat or punish members of the other group. They blame others for their own lack of success. Scapegoating has been used deliberately and cynically as a political or economic tool to consolidate power or distract from one's own misdoings. There can be no restitution, no rebirth, no clearing of the air and refocusing of effort accomplished by scapegoating.

I think lying is a different matter. "I didn't do it...He did it," is not projection, but self protection, an attempt to escape from responsibility or punishment. It may at times express malice. The person knows what's true. Scapegoating involves lying to one's self. Being scapegoated can make a person very insecure and angry at the same time. It's destructive to individuals and to society. At its worst, scapegoating leads to genocide.

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