GoatIn church last Sunday we took communion. As I was sitting holding the bread and wine (well, okay, the bread and juice) and thinking about the meaning of the eucharist (literally “thanksgiving”), a thought came to me that I’d like to explore a little today.

If you’ve been reading along here for a while, you’ll know that my understanding of Christ’s death on the cross has evolved significantly in recent times (see this post in particular). Specifically, I no longer buy into the notion that Jesus died to endure God’s wrath in my place – a notion I’ve come to see as little more than a Christianised version of a pagan sacrificial cult to an angry deity. Rather, I believe that Jesus died at the hands not of an angry God but of an angry mob, and that in his death he decisively demonstrated the all-enduring, all-forgiving love of God. (There is much more that I believe about Christ’s death than this, but this brief account goes some way towards explaining the core of the shift that has taken place in my understanding.)

One of the things that has shaped my thinking in this area is the work of French Christian anthropologist René Girard. Girard has written many books in his ninety plus years of life, and one of his central themes is the foundational role of scapegoating in human culture. An essential thesis of his is that human societies typically form, cohere and sustain themselves by identifying an enemy “other” who is then blamed for various evils and sacrificed (whether literally or metaphorically). In sacrificing a victim (which may, in practice, be an individual or a group) in this way, cultures are able to unite against a perceived common enemy and purge themselves of evil. (There is much more to Girard’s understanding of the foundations of culture and religion, but this will do as a basic introduction.)

It seems clear to me that, in his death, Jesus functioned as a scapegoat. The High Priest Caiaphas understood that it was better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish, while Pilate and his Roman cohorts undoubtedly saw Jesus’ death, at least in part, as a way to assuage an angry mob and thus defuse a highly charged atmosphere that was dangerously close to veering into open revolt. When we stand back and take a dispassionate look at the events surrounding Jesus’ death, then, it’s not difficult to discern this scapegoating dynamic. And, in discerning it, it’s not difficult to name it and condemn it as evil.

But here’s what I thought as I pondered communion the other day: I wonder whether, as Christians, we aren’t sometimes guilty of continuing to treat Jesus as a scapegoat.

Let me explain.

We often go through our lives believing that our primary spiritual problem is sin, by which we mean wrongdoing of various kinds. We believe sin is a problem because it somehow separates us from fellowship with God, and because, if not forgiven, it will land us in hell. And the way we believe sin is dealt with is for us to accept that Jesus took God’s punishment for our sin on our behalf, thus breaking its curse over our lives.

Starting from this kind of schema, it’s a short step to begin to see Jesus’ death as a mechanism by which we systematically expunge our sin by dumping it on Jesus so that we can continue to go about the business of our lives unhindered by guilt. Communion in particular can become little more than a regular routine by which we purge ourselves of the sin that has accumulated since last time we partook of it.

If this is so, how is this different from the ancient Hebrew people symbolically placing their sin on a goat and driving it out into the desert? And here’s the thing: Jesus came to do away with the sacrificial system of scapegoats, temple offerings and all the rest of it.

Now, I’m not saying that there is no element of regular guilt removal in celebrating the eucharist. But there is so much more than that: there is, above all, fellowship (which is what communion means) with Christ in his life and death; and there is the ingestion of Jesus’ very flesh and blood, representing the brokenness we (humanity as a whole) inflicted on his body and the blood he freely poured out in forgiveness.

When we reduce Jesus’ death and the sacrament by which we remember it (the eucharist) to a simple ritual of sin removal, I fear we might be making Jesus into a scapegoat – which is to say forcing him back into the very mould he came to shatter.

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