Whilst listening to Radio 4 this morning I heard an unbelievable slaughtering of God’s word by our favourite Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. In an attack on scape-goating he manages to quote Scripture to make one point when the very chapter he lifts his verse from argues the exact thing Fraser is rejecting. Here is my transcript of the key parts of Fraser’s Thought for the Day today (click here to listen from 1 hr 46 mins and 50 secs) (emphasis added).
My own understanding of what’s going on here owes much to the writings of the Roman Catholic thinker, Rene Girard. Working originally on Ancient Greek religion, Girard spent his academic career exploring the deep and disturbing connection between religion and violence. His big idea is that the sociological function of much religion is to provide a way of chanelling the violence that can build up within a community by refocussing aggression upon some innocent victim or scapegoat … Scapegoating unites a community by targetting some innocent victim, often someone a but different and on the fringes of society, and then discharging the community’s pent up violence against them.
This is the horrendous logic of sacrifice. Through violence the lynchmob generates a terrible sort of togetherness and then bad religion calls it salvation … Jesus follows the prohets of the old testament by exposing the true nature of religious scapegoating and by delaring his solidarity with the outsider, the innocent victim. Thus like the prophets he comes into conflict with the religious authorities and eventually becomes a victim of theologically inspired mob violence himself. “He was despised and rejected” and his death on the cross became a reflection of all those falsely accused, burnt by kerosene or drowned on the ducking stool. The message of the cross thus offers a disturbing analysis of human behaviour, from the communal bullying of the effeminate boy in the playground, to the use of foreign war as a way of achieving domestic togetherness, the cross exposes all the false unity we construct by means of scapegoating.
Where do we start?
Fraser’s polemic rejects the idea of scape-goating and accuses religious (conservative) institutions of using such practice to produce a false kind of cohesion. He quotes Isaiah 53:3 to describe the action of the religious authorities of first century Judea towards Jesus, but then presents the cross as the place that rejects unity through scape-goating.
If only he’d read a bit further because the rest of chapter 53 makes a mockery of his argument. The term scape-goat derives from the practice described in Leviticus 16 where a goat has the sins of the community laid upon it. Lev 16:8-10 describes how one of two goats is chosen by lot to make atonement (Heb KiPR – make propitiation) and ceremonially the high priest invests it with all the sins of the people. The goat was then led out of the city by another and kicked off into the wilderness. (Interestingly, during the time of Jesus, the last sight seen of the scapegoat was as it disappered over the hill of Golgotha). The person who led the scapegoat out had to clean his clothes and body before re-entering the camp.
Let’s read a bit further in Isaiah 53 from where Fraser quoted. Verses 4 to 6 read:
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Not convinced? Paul in Romans 3:25 argues the exact same thing,
God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his bloodâ€”to be received by faith
Far from scapegoating being an ungodly practice and part of false religion, Scripture itself tells us that Jesus was the ultimate scapegoat for our sins. And lest anybody deny that the cross was anything but the explicit desire of the Father for Jesus, verse 10 tells us very clearly,
Yet it was the LORDâ€™s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
And as for the notion that scapegoating is used by religious groups to create a false community based on aggression, not love – what nonsense! The scapegoating of Jesus creates a new community around the Father and the Son. Hebrews 9:12-14 says,
He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.Â The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.Â How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
and Ephesians 2:14-18 declares how Jesus’ death as a scapegoat creates a new people of peace.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,Â by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,Â and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.Â He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.Â For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Finally we have the picture in Revelation 5 of the worshipping church in heaven who literally revel in the gore of the cross as the elders sing,
You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.
Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!
By all means lets condemn those who seek to victimise those on the margins of society, but let’s not twist the words of Scripture to make them say something so utterly contrary to that which they actually declare. When Fraser says about scapegoating that “bad religion calls it salvation” we should respond that good religion, true religion understands it very clearly to be exactly that – the means and assurance of our eternal destiny.
In declaring that which the Bible glorifies and honours, the scapegoating of Jesus, “bad religion” Fraser walks a very dangerous path indeed.