Thoughts on “A better atonement: the last scapegoat”

The Scapegoat
The Scapegoat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have read the article “A better atonement: the last scapegoat” and the in-depth discussions that follow. I noted that Rene Girard has sought to explain the mindset of ancient people who subscribe to the scapegoat mentality as a foundation of their archaic religion, in terms of fulfilling their mimetic desire, which is “Human beings want what they see that other human beings have…Because human beings want what they see that others have (aka, mimetic desire), that leads to violence”.

I think this mindset of people wanting what they see that others have and resorting to violence to obtain what they want from others stems from the illusion of separation and identity crisis. Because of lack of self-knowledge and self-awareness, they were ignorant of their true identity – they did not know their own abundance and completeness and magnificence, and they thought they had to fight or kill others to get what they wanted.

So symbolically, Adam’s eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil had resulted in that duality and separation mindset, which may have resulted in people coveting and resorting to violence. The scapegoat mechanism may be a fruit of this mindset since people saw themselves as separate from one another and chose to blame others instead of seeing themselves as one with one another and taking responsibility for their own actions.

From my understanding, the scapegoat mechanism became a ritual in ancient religions that are built around the idea of sin and sacrifices. It was thus institutionalised by man, not God, so to speak. So Christ may have come to put an end to this religious ritual once and for all, especially for the Jewish people who subscribed to their own theology of sin and sacrifice. As the article put it:

“In Christ, God becomes the one who is rejected and expelled. That is, the scapegoat is not one us us who is sacrificed to appease an angry deity. Instead, the deity himself enters our society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices.”

(From “A better atonement: the last scapegoat“)

So in this sense, Jesus chose to become the non-sacrifice “sacrifice” (which is a divine paradox) that puts an end to all future sacrifices, and therefore an end to all organised religions based on the idea of sin, sacrifice, rituals and laws.

This reminds me of my reflections I shared recently in my blog in which I wrote:

I have read through Andre Rabe’s recent article “Glimpses into a mystery“, and I appreciate his explanation on the history behind the traditional ideas of sacrifice and atonement, which I understand are man’s ideas, not God’s. Even the Jewish idea of sacrifice is man’s idea, and so in this sense, in order for Jesus to transform the Jewish mindset about sacrifice and angry god and sin consciousness, he probably chose to speak their language by becoming the perfect sacrifice himself, not because God required it but because the Jews required it in order to find peace for their guilty conscience. (After all, the book of Hebrews was written to the Hebrews/Jews.)

(From “Progressive thoughts on why Jesus died on the cross and whether God’s justice is retributive and restorative“)

How does the scapegoat theory compare with the penal substitution atonement (PSA) theory?

From my understanding so far, Girard’s scapegoat theory (aka mimetic theory) seeks to explain that it is man who required a sacrifice to satisfy their bloodthirsty requirements for their own version of penal justice. (This penal justice, by the way, is based on the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or the law mindset in the lower consciousness – the carnal desire that seeks revenge and returns an eye for an eye is not based on Love because Love keeps no records of wrongs.)

Jesus mocked on the cross by those who were jealous of him

On the other hand, the penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) theory proposes that it is “God” who required a sacrifice to satisfy his bloodthirsty requirements for his penal justice (and thereby satisfy his most holy and majestic wrath, and also his royal temper tantrums, if I may venture to add). Already, I see the problem with the PSA theory because it makes God look like some savage monster who acts his own base desires for revenge and violence. Secondly, if God is love and love keeps no records of wrongs, why then the need for punishment or “penal justice”? Thirdly, if Jesus is God and Jesus taught people to love one’s enemies and not return an eye for an eye, then God is a hypocrite himself by doing the very thing he taught others not to do by exacting revenge and punishing himself on the cross as a “penalty” for people’s “sins” (and if that is not bizarre enough, he supposedly created a literal torture chamber called “hell” to punish for eternity those who did not acknowledge him or accept his “offer of salvation”, but that’s probably another topic for another day, since the topic here is about sacrifice/atonement).

I think the proponents of the PSA theory tend to:

  • take the bible literally (when it is meant to be interpreted metaphorically for the most part)
  • see God of the old testament the same as God of the new testament (they are not the same – God of the old testament is mostly a mental projection of the people living in ancient times projecting their own ego or false self onto their image of God, hence Jesus came to transform the Jews’ minds and tell them God is not like what they taught but rather God is their heavenly father)
  • think the law of Moses is from God (no because the law was given by Moses, a said representative of man, not God. On the other hand, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ – a picture of our divinity and humanity.)
  • see God as separate from man (no, God is one with man, and Jesus came to show us we are one with him and with the father, as the kingdom of God is within each of us)

So no matter how many verses the proponents of the PSA theory dig up from the bible to support their theory, it does not hold any water.

I remember sharing some thoughts about Joshua Tongol’s excellent message that debunks the PSA theory too – especially the part where he shared a Hebrew translation of Isaiah 53 that is contrary to the conventional idea that “God” was the one who “crush” Jesus on the cross.

“And the Lord desires to purify him of the plague; if you would give a sin offering, your soul will see long-lived posterity, and the Lord desires to take away.” (Isaiah 53:10)

We see that this translation is different from the common English translation that says “It pleased the Lord to crush him”, so the verse is indeed not about punishment. So we see that God is not the one causing Jesus to suffer. Jesus’ suffering was because He was taking the place of the first Adam (natural man) who had a separation mindset (sin, as we know, simply means ignorance). Jesus’ cry at the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” echoes man’s cry when man thought he was separated from God (his highest self), but in fact God has never forsaken man – separation is only an illusion.

(From “Was Jesus punished by the father? Challenging penal substitution” by Joshua Tongol)

How does the scapegoat theory relate to our modern world today?

Even today, there appears to be this condition in humanity that causes people to envy one another and want to imitate others in order to be accepted, such as in the fashion industry. This may be due to the fact that people have lost sight of their own intrinsic value and completeness, hence the gospel of the mystery of Christ in us may be the remedy to this condition because when people realise they are already whole and beloved and no one is better or worse than one another, they will naturally cease to covet other people have.

Office scapegoating

The gospel may also address the scapegoat mechanism that is still seen in workplaces where some people in the company put the blame on one person and fire the person but the resultant cohesion among them is only temporary before they find another scapegoat to blame. But once people have a revelation of the mystery of Christ in every person and see themselves as one, perhaps the “mental illness” might be overcome. This may sound idealistic but I guess it depends on how each person grasps the gospel for themselves. At least we see some progression from the medieval times when people and animals were routinely killed and burnt as sacrifices or scapegoats, or from centuries ago when those who challenged church authorities were executed (such as Galileo).

I suppose we all may still have a long way to go before we see greater peace in the world. Nevertheless, I think understanding the gospel in terms of mimetic theory does help each person to be free from the illusion of separateness and ego, and focus on the beauty and divinity in oneself and others. When people realise they are already innately beautiful and divine, they will no longer envy or desire what others have or try to imitate them in order to be accepted. Similarly, when they see themselves as one with one another and not separate, they will not find scapegoats to blame others because they know what they do to others they do to themselves (and vice versa). Jesus came to heal us all of our hurts we do to ourselves and one another by becoming the innocent scapegoat (representing our true self who is innocent and blameless) and putting to shame the principalities and powers (operating under the scapegoat mechanism) at the cross, so that in receiving and experiencing his forgiveness and love, we too begin to love and accept ourselves and one another as he has loved and accepted us.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. The man of flesh and blood, Jeshua (Jesus Christ) wanted to stay truthful to his Father, the Creator of heaven and earth. It was he who, as you said: may have come to put an end to this religious ritual of offering once and for all. He has given the sublime offering, for which we should be thankful that Jehovah God has received it and accepted it as such.

  2. eric keys says:

    Not sure if this is the correct forum for this question, but I’m trying to understand the mimetic atonement. If scapegoating was a way for people who were trapped in the cycle of mimetic desire/violence by vicariously seeing “justice” be done to the scapegoat, then how does the death of Jesus get me any benefit under this theory? How does his specific sacrifice apply to my life?

    In other words, lets say I’m caught up in desire all the electronic gadgets and do-dads people around me have, or I’m jealous about my friend getting a prettier wife or something like that… This causes me to want violence/justice/etc, right? So, how does Jesus dying as a scapegoat 2,000 years ago help me break out of this cycle?

    I’m not trying to belittle this theory, just trying to understand.

    Feel free to email me if you’d rather reply that way –


    1. jimmytst says:

      Hi Eric, thanks for your comments. I thought I would reply here so that others can benefit from our discussion too, hopefully. I am still on a journey of learning about mimetic theory myself, which I find plausible for explaining the event of the cross.

      As regards your query, my understanding is that Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates the violence of humankind and the non-violence and lovingkindness of God/Christ since Jesus forgave freely those who scapegoated him, for they did not know what they did. To me, one way to break out of the cycle of mimetic desire/violence is for us to imitate Christ who is our true self/identity instead of imitating our ego or our shadow self. I have blogged a bit about this here. I think that when we realise we are already complete in Christ and have everything we need, and when we imitate Christ in his love, grace and acceptance, we will no longer want to resort to scapegoating and violence; instead we will want to love our neighbour as ourselves.

      1. eric keys says:

        I see… So, the atonement is a picture, a diagram of God’s character rather than a transaction which can be credited to us. I’ve been so long exposed to the classical Evangelical reading of the atonement as a transaction that it is hard for me to think of it as anything else, right?

        Anyway, the resurrection validates that the picture is the correct picture. Is that how you see the mimetic atonement’s relationship to the resurrection?

      2. jimmytst says:

        Yes, I came from the evangelical background that teaches the message of the cross from a transactional point of view as well, and it took me some time to consider other points of view. I have come to realise that ultimately, it is all a matter of perspective, and there is perhaps no one “right” or “perfect” doctrine or theology that is able to explain or answer everything, and so the event of the cross – the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus – remains largely a mystery to me. For now, at this point of my journey, the mimetic theory on why Jesus died on the cross resonates with me as it unveils the love, grace and non-violent nature of God in contrast to the competitive, performance-based and violent nature of the system of the world.

        As for the resurrection, I would like to see it as an allegory about the deconstruction and reconstruction of our concept of God, from both spiritual and postmodernist points of view. It could be that only by the death and resurrection of Jesus, who continued to love people beyond his death despite their cruelty towards him, would people see the love of God that is undying and unending, and become free from their erroneous conception of a mean and vengeful god.

      3. eric keys says:

        I agree. The “perfect” theology is like the “perfect” map – always less than the territory and so never really perfect. But this mimetic theory has really been helpful in me seeing beyond the religion that drove me away from God and feels like a return to the Jesus who I once knew.

      4. jimmytst says:

        I am glad for you, Eric. Thanks for sharing about your journey – it is encouraging.

        Peace and blessings to you.

      5. marcusiologist says:

        Late to the party, but feeling the urge to ‘think out loud’. Eric’s original example, about breaking free from the desire for material things, is certainly answered in part by JimmyTST’s thoughts about Jesus’s simplicity… wanting the latest smartphone doesn’t lead directly to Smith-vs-Neo cataclysmic violence, but remembering Jesus’s simplicity can bring clarity of thought and love for others.
        However, there is a very real violence right below the surface of materialism, and one need not scrape very far to see it: Satan’s (and I use the term in a Girardian way) fingerprints are all over conflict minerals used in cheap electronics, destructive fossil fuel extraction, sweatshops, and repressive regimes that profit from the above. To engage in rapacious capitalism (qualified because not all capitalism is bad) by giving in to mimetic desire IS an act of violence.
        I write this from my computer filled with minerals of questionable provenance, in my house heated by gas possibly extracted from tar sands, drinking coffee that doesn’t attempt even a weak claim to fair trade. Am I prepared to give it all away? Nope. To me, being a post-Girard Christian implies a certain rationalization: that I could choose to renounce all engagement in rapacious capitalism and make a difference by example (but how would anyone know of my example if I can’t share it on social media?). Or I take the blue pill, stay in the matrix, and try to lever one soul after another towards love and simplicity– even though my lifestyle choices may well be responsible for others’ suffering.
        Geez, why did I even bother thinking out loud? Something about the unexamined life I suppose.

  3. jimmytst says:

    Living an examined life is hard, but necessary, and ultimately fulfilling, as I’ve come to realise. Each of us has to find our own ways to life’s perplexing issues and quandaries. I am always inspired by the starfish story. Like Helen Keller said, “I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

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