The Bible’s book of Leviticus told religious folks to select a goat and dump all their failings and evil onto the goat, then take it into the desert and release it. Every person I’ve known has selected at least one human scapegoat – a person or group who we blame for the things that disturb us.
Most of us are horrified by the ways Hitler and his supporters chose Jewish people as their scapegoats — torturing and murdering millions of their fellow citizens. We can hardly believe that our fellow human beings could march so deeply into darkness.
Would you or I treat other people as our own scapegoats?
Being the Scapegoat
I try hard to refuse scapegoating others because I have been the scapegoat at times in my life. Have you? Were you the black sheep in your family? The bad one in your class? The loser? Has your race, ethnic heritage, sexual identity, age, given others the excuse to dump on you? Some of us have been the scapegoat of others throughout our lives. These experiences endured by ourselves or others we love make us hate scapegoating.
But we still do it!
During the Presidency of George W. Bush I kept encountering decisions and actions that were the opposite if what I believed to be good and right. Each new difference increased my anger. He went from a fellow American who had differences from me to my enemy. Anything disappointing in my life gave me more ammunition for attacking him
After a while I began to sense a sour darkness seeping through my being. I could see my scapegoating poisoning my own heart.
Since then I have discovered my scape-goating temptation with others. One day my wife Cindy said to me, “You spend a lot of your life understanding other people and refusing to judge them. But when you find someone else judging people you dump all that stored-up judgment on them!” Ow!
How Does Scapegoating Work Inside us?
Karl Jung, the spiritual psychologist, described a process called projection. Stuff IN ME that I hate, I’m ashamed of, I’m angry about – I project on others. Like a movie projector, the thing inside me I project out on others… so I can escape dealing with it in myself, and my own complicity in the evil I am attacking. Scapegoats offer us relief from guilt, shame, fear, disappointment. For example, we might prefer to rid ourselves of a person who makes racist statements to doing the hard work of facing and changing our own involvement in systemic racism.
What do we do?
Can we get honest and stop turning other people into enemies? Jung urges us to take back our projections, to forgive our scapegoat (without approving their ideas or actions) and look for the things I dislike in myself and in the systems of our wider life. As Jesus taught us, we could stop obsessing on the splinter in the other’s eye and haul the log out of our own eye.” That does not make wrong right, but it seats us beside each other seeking our way.
The consequences of scapegoating
Across America we are suffering from deep divisions, judgments, and hate. We picture other people as stupid, evil animals, and ourselves as angels. This endangers our common life. Instead of becoming humble, facing our own weaknesses, and opening our hearts in compassion; instead of doing the excruciating work of seeking to learn from them about how they have come to see the world as they do… we sit on our throne of judgment looking down on them.
If we as America hope to rediscover our unity, our mutual need, and a way to healing, we must stop scapegoating and get honest with ourselves. We will need to start learning conversations with those others and develop understanding for each other. All of this is very hard work. And all of this is the heart of spiritual traditions of the ages, the hope of our future.