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Stories of Jesus

Chapter 4: The Stories


Part Two: Easter Jesus in old stories

An old story: The scapegoat

In the previous story nobody knows the real reason why a “human sacrifice” was able to restore the community to a functioning unit. They first blamed Achan, instead of their own rivalry over spoils of war, for the defeat the group experienced, then credited this victim’s death for the renewed harmony that enabled the ensuing victory—all of it orchestrated by the unseen force they called God. In their minds it was God who punished when offended and rewarded when adequate satisfaction had been made. But really it was a mechanism that we see all the time in human relations. It’s called the scapegoat.

The Israelites had a ceremony in which the people would symbolically lay all the sins of the community on a goat and then send the sin-laden creature out into the wilderness to starve or be eaten by wild animals. (Leviticus 16:20-22) 

This scapegoat mechanism has played an important role in human history. Anytime we can single out and exclude someone or some group who is not “WE,” we strengthen the sense of “US,” we become a more unified, coherent group, and we can forget whatever was dividing us and go out and do “great” things. 

Here’s the catch. For one who understood the mechanism the way I just explained, it wouldn’t work. The truth has to be hidden, and in human history magic and superstition, taboo and ritual cleansing are the tools, the lies, that have accomplished that. Another word for it is “religion.”

This theory is proposed by René Girard, a French scholar whose interests include literature (where he sees that the scapegoat mechanism, hidden or more or less exposed, is often a central concern) and religion. James Alison is an interpreter of Girard, and I promised to say more about him. Alison is gay, a circumstance that would in most cases be neither here nor there, but in this case, I think, is quite relevant. It probably makes it easier for Alison to notice, understand, and value the victim’s side of any story.

On to Imagining Religion's Beginning